An unmanned mission to return samples from Mars is viewed by many scientists as the “holy grail” of Mars research. Many of the answers to the questions we have about the red planet’s past, including the possibility that life was there, should not appear until we are able to analyze selected rocks there with our best laboratory equipment. And now several countries are on the way.
Those who talked about it the most in the past have been Americans. Mainly because, until last week, NASA was the only organization that had already carried out a successful solo mission to Mars. And that several times. But the challenge of reaching the red planet is minor next to the job that would return from there. Hence the reticence of decades.
The first international studies, painted in 2006, and in the end, Nasa and ESA, American and European space agencies, chose to partner on the mission. In 2018 they both signed a letter of intent, in 2019 they proposed an architecture for samples to be brought back – in 2031.
That plan was set in motion with the landing of the Mars 2020 mission in February of this year, which brought the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity mini-helicopter to the Jezero crater on Mars. It is the job of the robot jeep to collect several samples during its mission and to store them in tubes, which are then left together on the surface of Mars. The “rescue operation” then begins.
A dual mission, slated to begin in July 2026, would be a small two-stage rocket installed in a landing module on the Martian soil near Perseverance, to be developed by NASA, and an ESA-developed rover to be used in the Is able to take samples and place them on the Martian soil in the rocket.
The little launcher would then put a capsule containing the material into orbit around Mars, where it is captured by an ESA-developed orbiter with an ion motor that can take it to Mars and then bring it back. This mothership would be launched by an Ariane 6 in October 2026 and reach Mars in 2027, gradually reducing its orbit until it reaches the point where it could hit the capsule in July 2028. Returning to Earth would require waiting for the planets to align properly, which would enable the arrival in 2031.
There is still a lot to develop and there are several ways the plan can go wrong. This shows how difficult it is to get samples from there. Because of this, some other countries have considered other initiatives.
In 2024, the Japanese space agency Jaxa plans to launch the MMX mission, an abbreviation for Exploration of the Martian Moons. The red planet has two, Phobos and Deimos, much smaller than our moon.
The idea is to use all of the Japanese experience with the Hayabusa and Hayabusa2 missions, which brought samples from asteroids, to do the same on the Martian moon Phobos.
While taking a sample of the soil from Mars is not the same thing, the fact is that asteroid impacts on the planets should routinely eject Martian meteorites (some of them crashed on Earth and are well studied, by the way). and some of them are sure to land on the Phobos surface. So it’s not inconceivable that Martian material comes with a handful of sharp objects that MMX can collect in fobos. And that sample would be back on Earth in July 2029.
It’s much less attractive than choosing promising rocks on Mars and being able to transport them without aggressive processes (such as an impact), but it’s a shortcut. And the mission will count with the participation of NASA, ESA and CNES (French agency) providing scientific tools.
China opens a trail
With their successful landing on Mars, the Chinese embarked on an alternative route to collect samples from the red planet and bring them back to Earth.
Although they barely operated their Zhurong rover there after landing last Friday, they use the technological advances of the last few decades to skip stages. Their wheeled vehicle is just less powerful than nuclear curiosity and perseverance (equipped with plutonium batteries instead of solar panels), and its scientists say they are looking for evidence of past life on the red planet – the same stated goal of the Mars mission. 2020 from NASA.
Nobody knows exactly what the Chinese plans are and two different proposals have already been circulated. One would be to do everything in a single mission, which would involve fewer complications and risks, but would require the country’s most powerful launchers in development, the long March 9, to go to the moon in future manned missions from 2030 onwards to be used according to Chinese plans.
The alternative also proposed would be to divide the project into several launches, as planned by NASA and ESA. And then, guess what, the return would be in 2031 as well. That said, it’s a pretty safe bet that we probably won’t have a return of samples from Mars until 2031. But not guaranteed.
The musk factor
In these times, no one can forget how quickly the space exploration landscape is changing with the advent of reusable rockets and Elon Musk’s decision to run a company, SpaceX, with the express goal of colonizing Mars.
The Starship vehicle currently being developed by the company was recently selected by NASA to bring astronauts back to the moon. However, no one should lose sight of the fact that their project was originally intended to enable the transportation of up to 100 people at one time to Mars.
It is not impossible that in two or three years the spaceship will be mature enough to attempt a trip to Mars. He would not be able to return alone. If SpaceX could install a fuel plant there (the spacecraft was designed to use methane as fuel precisely because it can be easily made from Martian water and carbon dioxide), a sample return mission would be a conceivable robot that could return before 2031. You’ll have to wait and see see.
The occupation is dictated by the 1967 Space Treaty
Nobody can declare ownership or sovereignty over an area in a celestial body, but there is no express veto against the use of local resources or the establishment of bases.
The United States is trying to create a broader international framework for the issue of resource use, for example by establishing “safety zones” around spaceships that are controlled by anyone who has taken the ship.
In addition, countries like the US and Luxembourg have passed national laws to regulate ownership of space-extracted resources to ensure that an American company ship collects a sample of the moon that the company owns to ensure legal security for the companies to explore.
There is still no clearer international set of rules, and it is necessary to literally combine the terms with the Russians and also with the Chinese, as they understand that this is the US trying to legislate on their own cause without anyone first to consult text submitted to partners.