For nearly two years (has it been that long already?) NASA’s Perseverance rover has been scuttling about the western rim of Mars’ Jezero Crater, coring rocks and imaging the planet’s surface.
The rover’s main purpose is to collect rock samples of scientific interest that can be stored on the surface and brought to Earth in 2033. Now, the rover team is finally selecting a spot to drop off its first cache of samples.
The big question is whether life ever existed on Mars, which is why Perseverance alighted in Jezero, a place where water once flowed. The rock samples are crucial for investigating that question, as well as better understanding the geological makeup of the planet and how it changed over time.
Billions of years ago, Jezero Crater is thought to have been a lake that was fed by a river delta. Scientists think that if life ever existed on Mars, it likely inhabited regions like the Jezero delta. That theory is based on where stromatolites—the most ancient life known on Earth—lived, about 3.45 billion years ago.
Perseverance is collecting rock and regolith (broken-up rock and dust) from the westerly edge of Jezero and storing them in sample tubes that will be left in a flat, obstacle-free area called Three Forks. This is to ensure that the tubes are easily accessible for a future spacecraft. So far, Perseverance has traveled over 8 miles on Mars and collected 14 samples of rock and air.
“NASA and ESA have reviewed the proposed site and the Mars samples that will be deployed for this cache as soon as next month,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, in an ESA release. “When that first tube is positioned on the surface, it will be a historic moment in space exploration.”
The Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission sounds simple when you keep it brief: One spacecraft will launch to Mars, where it will land and pick up the rock samples curated by the Perseverance rover team. Then, the spacecraft will hand the samples off to another spacecraft (the European Earth Return Orbiter) waiting above Mars, for the samples’ eventual delivery to Earth.
Okay, typing it all out makes it clear just how many things have to go right to pull this off. But what an achievement that would be! With samples on Earth, scientists will be able to interrogate Martian soil and geology in ways that are impossible remotely—and, if we’re extra lucky, they might even find microfossils. These will be the first samples from another planet ever brought to Earth.
When you factor in that the Earth Return Orbiter will be the largest spacecraft to ever orbit Mars, with a wingspan more than twice that of the Trace Gas Orbiter and nearly three times as wide as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, it makes for a pretty historic operation.
Once the sample drop-off point is determined, the stage will have been set for sample return. Can’t it be 2033 already?