The International Mars Sample Return Objectives and Samples Team (iMOST) finished its work on the study of science potential of Mars Sample Return and released the correspondent “white paper” report, in which a detailed strategy for the collection and further analysis of the samples to be return to Earth has been defined. One of the members of the iMOST team, Professor María Paz Zorzano, from the Group of Atmospheric Science, has explained to us why it is relevant to cooperate internationally on this matter.
The convenience of performing such a study has been imposed by the imminent launch of the NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, the first spacecraft fitted with a sample collection system that will take at least 20 samples during its operations and will dispose them, appropriately sealed, for their eventual retrieval by future dedicated missions. The International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG) established iMOST in November 2017 with the assignment of listing the preferential scientific objectives and to detail the needed operation criteria and procedures in order to reach them, from the type of samples to be taken to the optimal curation and analysis protocols to be applied once the samples are eventually back on Earth.
“The team had as baseline of study-case for discussion, the NASA Mars 2020 rover sampling and caching system, but the goals, the analysis and conclusions are not specific to this mission and were considered with a global, international perspective”, says Prof. María-Paz Zorzano.
“We have reviewed the state of the art of the knowledge about Mars, the existing technologies for analysis on Earth, our knowledge from Earth analogue environment and the expected impact of the discoveries on science and technology produced from a potential future mars sample return mission with those samples.”
The broad intention of the report therefore is not only to sketch a global view of goals, scientific requirements and samples that may be taken by the Mars 2020, but most importantly to document the reasons that may motivate to recover those samples and bring them back to Earth. Seven objectives have been defined to provide a framework for demonstrating how the first set of returned martian samples would impact future martian science and exploration. They also have implications for how analogous investigations might be conducted for samples returned by future missions from other solar system bodies, especially those that may harbor biologically relevant or sensitive material, such as Ocean Worlds (Europa, Enceladus, Titan) and others. Among the objectives and sub-objectives we can find subjects like:
Additionally, several frame criteria for guiding the whole process of collection and return of samples have been established. Thus, the team advises about the convenient size and quality of the samples, the need of counting on an accurate contextualization of the collection point, the convenience of grouping the samples in significant “suites” or the need for caching gas, dust and regolith etc.
The creation of the iMOST has responded to the wish (and the need), to have an international support and commitment for this long-term and challenging project.
Prof. Maria-Paz Zorzano adds that “In the meantime, in April 2018, NASA and ESA have signed a joined Statement of Intent for collaboration on Mars Sample Return and this is a clear demonstration of the existing international interest on cooperation. I really hope that other space agencies and companies will join soon this effort because the discoveries and technological breakthroughs that will come along may change the history of exploration and human kind.”
“Aerospace companies are indeed joining this effort”continues Prof. Zorzano, “On July 2018, Airbus has won two studies from ESA to design a Sample Fetch Rover and an Earth Return Orbiter. These two elements will be critical parts of a potential mission for the year 2026 that would return samples of the planet Mars to Earth. According to their preliminary baseline, the Mars Sample Fetch Rover will retrieve Mars samples left by the Mars 2020 rover, carry them back and load them into a sample container within the waiting Mars Ascent Vehicle. The Mars Ascent Vehicle will then launch from the surface and put the sample container into orbit about Mars. Finally, the ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter, will capture on orbit the sample container, seal it within a biocontainment system, and bring the samples back to Earth. It looks like science fiction to us, but if this effort continues this means that Mars samples will re-enter the atmosphere and land on our planet before the end of the next decade allowing, for scientists to continue their research”.