NASA, along with the European Space Agency, is developing a campaign to return the Martian samples to Earth.

On Sept. 1, NASA’s Perseverance rover unfurled its arm, placed a drill bit at the Martian surface, and drilled about 2 inches, or 6 centimeters, down to extract a rock core. The rover later sealed the rock core in its tube. This historic event marked the first time a spacecraft packed up a rock sample from another planet that could be returned to Earth by future spacecraft.

Mars Sample Return is a multi-mission campaign designed to retrieve the cores Perseverance will collect over the next several years. Currently in the concept design and technology development phase, the campaign is one of the most ambitious endeavors in spaceflight history, involving multiple spacecraft, multiple launches, and dozens of government agencies.

“Returning a sample from Mars has been a priority for the planetary science community since the 1980s, and the potential opportunity to finally realize this goal has unleashed a torrent of creativity,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program based at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The benefit of analyzing samples back on Earth — rather than assigning the task to a rover on the Martian surface — is that scientists can use many kinds of cutting-edge lab technologies that are too big and too complex to send to Mars. And they can do analyses much faster in the lab while providing far more information on whether life ever existed on Mars.

“I have dreamed of having Mars samples to analyze since I was a graduate student,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, principal scientist for the Mars Sample Return program, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “The collection of these well-documented samples will eventually allow us to analyze them in the best laboratories here on Earth once they are returned.”

Mars Sample Return would involve several firsts aimed at settling an open question: Has life taken root anywhere in the solar system besides Earth?  “I’ve been working my whole career for the opportunity to answer this question,” said Daniel Glavin, an astrobiologist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Glavin is helping design systems to protect the Martian samples from contamination throughout their journey from Mars to Earth.

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