MarsNews.com
May 31st, 2019

Europe to Mars – and back!

Europe has been in orbit around Mars for more than 15 years and is almost a year away from launching its first rover mission, but ambitions are already running high to go one step further: returning a sample from the Red Planet.

In 2016, ESA and Roscomos launched the 3.7 tonne ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), the heaviest spacecraft operating at Mars today. Dedicated to analysing the planet’s atmosphere in greater detail than ever, it is making a census of the gases present and to find out if any have a biological or geological origin. The spacecraft is also providing a global map of water distribution in terms of water-ice or water-hydrated minerals in the shallow sub-surface of Mars.

TGO is also a key provider of data-relay services to NASA’s Insight lander and Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. It will be the primary communications relay for the second ExoMars mission, which comprises a rover and surface science platform. It is on track for launching in July 2020 and will arrive at Mars in March 2021. TGO is already getting ready for the new arrival: next month it will make adjustments to its orbit to ensure it will be in the correct position to support the entry, descent and landing of the descent module.

After driving off the surface platform and studying its surrounds, the rover, named Rosalind Franklin, will locate scientifically interesting sites to examine. It will retrieve samples from 2 m below the ground, where they are protected from the harsh radiation that bombards the surface, for analysis in its highly advanced onboard laboratory to search for evidence of life.

May 23rd, 2019

Scientists gear up to look for fossils on Mars

Upcoming missions like NASA’s Mars 2020 might already have the technology to find tiny micro-fossils on the Red Planet.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

When most people imagine hunting for fossils, they probably think of finding dinosaur bones laid down in layers of rock. But the vast majority of life – and therefore fossils – across Earth’s history has been microorganisms. These tiny lifeforms, either plants, animals or fungi, can be smaller than the width of a human hair. But with the right tools, the fossilized records of these tiny creatures reveal insights into the history of a planet. Even planets that aren’t Earth.

A group of Swedish scientists led by Magnus Ivarsson point out in research published May 1 in Frontiers in Earth Science that instruments already planned for upcoming space missions like the Mars 2020 rover could detect tiny fossils on Mars, if they exist. But Mars 2020 can’t analyze every rock it encounters in detail, so the researchers propose a few ways to determine the best places to look on the Red Planet.

March 14th, 2019

Amidst Cuts to NASA, Mars Sample Return May Finally Happen

A high-level overview of NASA’s latest proposed Mars sample return mission.

The President’s budget request for NASA (released on 11 March) defies easy characterization. It includes many welcome proposals: $109 million for a new Mars Sample Return mission, an accelerated launch timeline for Europa Clipper, and funding increases for future human deep-space efforts, to name a few. Yet it also includes a frustrating litany of cuts previously and resoundingly rejected by Congress, attempting again to kill the WFIRST space telescope, multiple Earth Science missions, and the entirety of NASA’s Education/STEM outreach division.

The budget request does contain significant increases for the Administration’s lunar initiative, primarily for the Lunar Gateway project, which would grow from $450 million to $820 million. The Administration proposes additional increases for technology development related to lunar exploration and deep space habitability, though success in these efforts will depend on maintaining growth and controlling program costs in subsequent years.

March 6th, 2019

Researchers Outline Goals for Collecting and Studying Samples from Mars

Image Credit: Thomas Rafalzyk (for European Space Agency) – 2nd International Mars Sample Return conference, Berlin, April 25 – 27, 2018

Returning samples from the surface of Mars has been a high-priority goal of the international Mars exploration community for many years. Although randomly collected samples would be potentially interesting, they would not be sufficient to answer the big questions that have motivated Mars exploration for decades. A new paper published in Meteoritics & Planetary Science describes the results of a major collaboration among 71 scientists from throughout the international science community to define specific scientific objectives for a Mars Sample Return campaign, to describe the critical measurements that would need to be done on returned samples to address the objectives, and to identify the kinds of samples that would be most likely to carry the key information.

The study was sponsored by the International Mars Exploration Working Group. The authors note that the seven proposed objectives provide a framework for demonstrating how the first set of returned Martian samples would impact future Martian science and exploration.

December 3rd, 2018

Five planned missions to Mars

An artist’s impression of SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy Rocket. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Space agencies around the world are set to explore the red planet, while Elon Musk has even grander plans.

October 5th, 2018

MASCOT 2.0? Mars Moon Rover to Fly on Japanese Mission to Phobos in 2024

An artist’s illustration of Japan’s Mars Moons Exploration (MMX) spacecraft at the small Martian satellite Phobos.
Credit: JAXA/NASA

The hopping asteroid lander MASCOT may be dead, but its bloodline will live on — and get to explore the Mars system a few years from now.

A rover will be incorporated into Japan’s Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) sample-return mission, which is scheduled to launch in 2024, Japanese, German and French space officials announced Wednesday (Oct. 3).

Like MASCOT, which explored the 3,000-foot-wide (900 meters) asteroid Ryugu for 17 hours this week, the new robot will be built by the German Aerospace Center, known by its German acronym DLR, in collaboration with the French space agency, CNES.

MMX aims to return a sample of the 14-mile-wide (22 kilometers) Mars moon Phobos to Earth in 2029. The newly announced rover will facilitate that work and also collect some important data of its own.

September 7th, 2018

British scientists launch daring space mission to bring back samples of Martian soil

Alastair Wayman with the Mars rover at Airbus in Stevenage, Herts CREDIT: EDDIE MULHOLLAND FOR THE TELEGRAPH

British scientists are launching a daring mission to Mars to bring back samples of Martian soil which could prove that life once existed on the Red Planet.

In 2020, Nasa’s new rover will land on Mars and begin drilling down into the surface for core samples.

But it is experts at Airbus in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, who have been tasked with getting the precious cargo back to Earth.

The team is currently designing a second rover which will launch in 2026 to collect Nasa’s samples, load them onto a rocket and fire them up into orbit to be collected by a spacecraft and brought home.

August 9th, 2018

Report: NASA Needs to Get Moving on Its Plan to Snatch Some Mars Dust

Illustration of the Solar System.
Illustration: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA doesn’t just randomly decide what telescopes and satellites to shoot into space and what planet to study next. Instead, a committee of outside scientists drafts a set of goals and recommendations in what’s called a decadal survey. And though it notes some financial setbacks, a midterm review of the last decadal survey report says NASA has done a pretty good job hitting the goals set by the 2013-2022 Planetary Science survey. But there’s work left to do, especially when it comes to bringing a sample of Martian dust to Earth.

The National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday released a midterm assessment of NASA’s progress on meeting the planetary science community’s goals for 2013 to 2022. According to the report, NASA has more or less met or exceeded the committee’s recommendations—but it hasn’t adhered to the recommended timeline for developing some discovery missions.

July 10th, 2018

ESA awards Mars sample return study contracts as international cooperation plans take shape

ESA is studying a rover that would fetch samples for launch on a NASA-built Mars Ascent Vehicle (above), as well as an orbiter that would capture the sample container for return to Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The European Space Agency awarded two contracts to Airbus to study elements of a Mars sample return approach as the outlines of international cooperation with NASA on that effort materialize.

Airbus announced July 6 that it received two study contracts from ESA regarding Mars sample return mission concepts. Those studies include a rover to collect samples and an orbiter to return those samples to Earth.

The Mars Sample Fetch Rover, as conceived by ESA, would launch to Mars in 2026 on a NASA lander mission. It would use a robotic arm to gather samples cached by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, returning those samples to the lander and loading them into a NASA-provided rocket known as a Mars Ascent Vehicle that will launch them into Mars orbit.

The Earth Return Orbiter would rendezvous with the sample contained in Mars orbit. The orbiter would place the sample inside a biocontainment system in a reentry capsule for return to Earth by the end of the 2020s.

February 13th, 2018

Piece of Mars is Going Home

A slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars placed inside an oxygen plasma cleaner, which removes organics from the outside of surfaces. This slice will likely be used here on Earth for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; a separate slice will go to Mars on the rover.

A chunk of Mars will soon be returning home.

A piece of a meteorite called Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) will be carried on board NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, now being built at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This chunk will serve as target practice for a high-precision laser on the rover’s arm.

Mars 2020’s goal is ambitious: collect samples from the Red Planet’s surface that a future mission could potentially return to Earth. One of the rover’s many tools will be a laser designed to illuminate rock features as fine as a human hair.

That level of precision requires a calibration target to help tweak the laser’s settings. Previous NASA rovers have included calibration targets as well. Depending on the instrument, the target material can include things like rock, metal or glass, and can often look like a painter’s palette.

But working on this particular instrument sparked an idea among JPL scientists: why not use an actual piece of Mars? Earth has a limited supply of Martian meteorites, which scientists determined were blasted off Mars’ surface millions of years ago.

These meteorites aren’t as unique as the geologically diverse samples 2020 will collect. But they’re still scientifically interesting — and perfect for target practice.