At a press conference on September 10, NASA officials and project scientists hailed the collection of two samples of a rock dubbed “Rochette” as a major step in the effort to return samples to long term on Mars which will end at the earliest in a decade. with those samples returned to Earth.
“These now represent the beginning of the return of samples to Mars,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University who serves as the lead scientist for the return of samples to Mars for NASA.
The successful collections of the first two samples came a month after the rover unsuccessfully attempted to collect a sample from another rock, called Roubion. Scientists concluded that the problem was not with the sampling system but rather with the rock itself – it was weaker than expected and collapsed during the sampling process.
The two volcanic rocks are similar, but were likely exposed to different amounts of water, said Yulia Goreva, the scientist in charge of the Perseverance return sample investigation at JPL. Roubion experienced much more weathering in the form of salts created by exposure to water.
“If these rocks have known water for long periods of time, there may be habitable niches in these rocks that could have supported ancient microbial life,” said Katie Stack Morgan, associate scientist for the Perseverance Project at JPL. So the project decided to collect two samples from Rochette, with plans to later store them in separate sample caches to increase the likelihood of at least one returning to Earth.
Perseverance will collect around three dozen samples during its mission. Scientists said during the briefing that they were planning their next sample collection efforts and left open the possibility of making another sample collection attempt at Roubion.
Two future missions will collect these samples and bring them back to Earth. A NASA-led lander mission including a European Space Agency rover will retrieve the samples, load them into a container and launch them into orbit around Mars. An ESA-led orbiter, with a collection system provided by NASA, will retrieve the samples and bring them back to Earth.
These subsequent missions will not launch until 2026, although they are still in what NASA calls Phase A, focused on the initial studies. “As part of phase A, we’re exploring a bunch of different trades and trying to better understand how we can perform this mission,” said Lori Glaze, director of the planetary science division at NASA. “We are where we should be right now. “
She did not specify which trades were being considered or when it would be over. An independent review last year recommended NASA consider several changes, ranging from pushing mission launch until 2028 to considering splitting the sample return lander into two spacecraft and using nuclear power rather than solar for this one. The global scientific community is increasingly skeptical that the two Mars sample return missions could be ready for launch in 2026.
Funding, she added, is not a problem. “We are extremely satisfied with the budget request that the President has presented for FY2022 and beyond, and I think we are in a very good position right now with the funding we have,” he said. she declared. This budget proposal included $ 653 million for the return of the Mars sample in 2022 and forecast spending of $ 3.5 billion from 2022 to 2026.
In the meantime, Perseverance will continue to take samples for a possible return to Earth. “In our scientific community, we’ve been talking about returning samples from Mars for decades,” Wadhwa said. “Now this is starting to feel real. “