Now that the Perseverance rover is safe and sound on the Martian surface, several workgroups around the world can take a deep breath and ponder the future steps of the Mars exploration program, which will now focus on returning samples to Earth.
The current mission is a critical first step. Ultimately, it is up to Percy, as the jeep was called, to examine and select the rocks (commanded by scientists on Earth, of course), which he packs in small sealed and highly resistant tubes and then left together in a corner of Martian surface.
He will have several years to do this while exploring Jezero Crater, one of the most promising places to look for evidence of Martian past life. But what’s next?
NASA and ESA, American and European space agencies, are already working together on the next steps, which include at least two more and possibly three different launches, to bring back the coveted material.
Definitions are still missing, but preliminary work suggests the following order. In 2026, a landing module with a small missile less than three meters in size was installed on board. The spacecraft designed and built by NASA landed near the place where Perseverance descended. And then, maybe starting from the module itself, maybe in a separate launch, a small rover made by ESA would find the samples and install them in the rocket.
In parallel, in 2026 or 2027, an electrically powered orbiter, another ESA contribution, would deviate from Earth and set up in orbit around Mars.
In mid-2029 the rocket would be fired (the first launch from another planet!) And put the capsule with the samples into orbit around Mars. There it would join forces with the European orbiter, which in turn would bring the contents back to Earth in 2031. The entire company would cost about $ 5 billion, not including the $ 2.7 billion allocated to the Perseverance mission.
The reward, however, would be of immeasurable value. Scientists already had the opportunity to analyze some samples from Mars – meteorites from the red planet – but never had the opportunity to select the rocks because they knew the geological context from which they had assumed. And returned samples provide new results for decades as more sophisticated equipment appears to examine them. No wonder the samples from the Apollo program that brought humans to the moon between 1969 and 1972 are still being studied today.
In addition, it is important to demonstrate the ability to move a small cargo off Mars before planning to move a large cargo – as humans – on a future manned mission.
This column is published in Folha Corrida on Mondays.
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