NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance isn’t just exploring Mars for the scientific discoveries it can make now—it’s also paving the way for future missions that intend to return samples from Mars to Earth for the first time. This complex plan involves multiple vehicles, including spacecraft, a lander and two helicopters, that will work together to collect samples from the surface of Mars, take them into orbit and return them to Earth. But Perseverance starts the process by collecting samples, sealing them in tubes, and leaving those tubes on the surface for future collection missions.
Now NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have announced that they have selected the first samples to be deposited on the surface, ready for collection. “Never before has a scientifically prepared collection of samples from another planet been collected and placed for return to Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters, in statement. “NASA and ESA have reviewed the proposed site and the Mars samples that will be deployed for this cache as early as next month. When this first tube is positioned on the surface, it will be a historic moment in space exploration.
Ten of the 14 samples that Perseverance has collected so far will be deposited in an area of Jezero Crater called Three Forks. This region was chosen because it is flat and free of obstacles such as large boulders that could cause problems for future collection. The samples selected for collection include both igneous and sedimentary rocks collected from the rover’s 8-mile journey through Jezero.
“Transferring these samples to our laboratories would allow us to achieve a breakthrough in science and understand the specific region of Jezero,” said Gerhard Kminek, lead scientist for the return of Mars samples for ESA, in statement. “We could also learn more about the environmental conditions on Mars at the time when life appeared on Earth and perhaps on the Red Planet.”
Jezero Crater is the site of an ancient lake, and scientists believe that it once housed potential life. To learn more about whether life could indeed have flourished on ancient Mars, scientists need to get samples to Earth-based laboratories to conduct more detailed experiments than are possible on a rover.
After the rover leaves the samples, it will continue to explore and collect more samples. “Although a significant mission milestone will occur once these tubes are ejected, that doesn’t mean Perseverance’s research or sample collection is over — not ultimately,” said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley of Caltech . “We will then head to the top of the delta in an area that appears to be geologically rich from satellite imagery, conducting research and collecting more rock cores.” Mars Sample Return will have a lot of great stuff to choose from.”