iMOST: The Science of the Future Mars Sample Return mission, Today

Professor María Paz Zorzano and David Fernández Remolar, from the Group of Atmospheric Science of the Luleå University of Technology, have been invited to become members of a large international scientific assessment group: the iMOST (International Mars Sample Return Objectives and Samples Team). The goal of iMOST is “to study the science potential of Mars sample return”. The initiative has been driven by the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG) and aims to involve the international community in the planning for returned sample science, including the analysis of the returned samples. This process starts with the definition of the goals, then the selection of interesting targets to be sampled, and finally the design of the analysis to be performed eventually on Earth’s laboratories. The conclusions from iMOST may also be useful to provide scientific advice for the planning of the next scheduled exploration missions to Mars regarding the collection of samples.

Mars sample return diagram.
Credits: NASA

Over the last decade, space research has experienced a unique impulse. For the first time in history the research community is able to design a very unique and novel experiment: The scientists can discuss about investigations and projects that will take place in the distant future because they rely on samples which have not been collected yet, and which we hope to have on Earth in the future. These projects and experiments can be considered now because of the impulse of space exploration world-wide and the discussions about potential Mars return missions. We are now planning how to go to another planet that is hundreds of millions of kilometres far away from us, Mars, take samples, store them, and return them to Earth in a “safe and sound” manner.

The Group of Atmospheric Science (GAS) is participating in this amazing forum with two researchers, Professor María Paz Zorzano and David Fernández Remolar. The preliminary conclusions of this international team will be presented in the 2nd International Mars Sample Return Conference, to be held in Berlin, Germany, between 25th -27th April 2018, hosted by ESA and DLR in cooperation with Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI), NASA and the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG) with support from OHB and Airbus. This work may serve as a reference for the Mars 2020 rover science team when planning the collection operations on Mars. David Fernández-Remolar has been mainly involved in the documentation of ancient hydrothermal systems of Mars as potential targets to look for evidence of traces of life. María-Paz Zorzano has contributed mainly to the discussions about atmospheric sampling, oxidizing chemicals and the water cycle, as well as on the uses of Martian samples to strengthen our knowledge about Mars In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU).

Illustration of NASA's 2020 rover.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will open the way by collecting samples which will be appropriately prepared and stored on Mars for its eventual retrieval by further missions that can bring them back to Earth. It is therefore convenient and timely to foresee not only the investigations which are expected to be developed from the returned samples, but also what kind of samples would be more relevant and how they will preserve.

But, first of all, what kind of samples can be caught by a rover on Mars? The study to be carried out by iMOST will be partially conditioned by the collecting capabilities of the Sample Handling system the Mars 2020 rover is equipped with, so that only rocks and regolith samples, together with atmospheric samples, must be considered to be eventually gathered by the sample retrieval mission. Samples from Mars can provide valuable information in several areas, such as Martian geology, geochronology, geochemistry or geophysics, atmospheric chemistry, to mention just a few. But perhaps it is worth remarking two of them: on one hand, the importance of their analysis to prepare future In-Situ Resource Utilization, essential for the eventual launch and return of manned missions to Mars. On the other hand, from the analysis of these samples, it will be possible to carry out a proper search for signs of life. This inquiry has been to-date strongly constrained by the analysis limitations of the spacecrafts used so far (landers and rovers).

In summary, iMOST could be considered as one of the most amazing, international forums for discussion with scientists of different expertise. iMOST is a truly cutting-edge science community built around Mars science, technology and exploration that is aiming at stablishing the grounds for the science and technology of the future. All together, these scientists from now are trying to do a real Mars “back to the future” simulation. Is thrilling to be part of this initiative that can benefit all humankind.