Perseverance rover spots first Mars launch mission

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The Perseverance rover now has a new job: to act as a scout on Mars.

In addition to collecting the first samples from an ancient river delta on the Red Planet, the robotic explorer has spotted flat areas around Jezero Crater that could serve as a landing site for the Mars sample return campaign.

This ambitious initiative, a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency, will rely on multiple missions to retrieve samples collected by Perseverance and bring them back to Earth over the next decade. These specimens will be the first Martian samples brought back to Earth.

“I am a geologist, meteorologist, photographer, etc. Now I can add “tracking” to the list. I have spotted places where the Mars Sample Return spacecraft could set up operations – including the first launch pad on another planet,” read a tweet from the rover’s Twitter account.

As Perseverance investigates the site of an ancient lake that existed billions of years ago, he collects rocks and dirt. This material is interesting because it could contain evidence of past microscopic organisms that would reveal whether life ever existed on Mars.

Scientists will have the chance to use some of the most sophisticated instruments in the world to study these valuable samples.

The Martian sample return campaign will begin in the mid-2020s, when a rocket will be launched on a mission to Mars with a Sample Retrieval Lander and a fetch rover.

Once the lander arrives on Mars, it will touch down near Jezero Crater and release the recovery rover to retrieve samples from areas where Perseverance has hidden them on the Martian surface.

This illustration shows a concept for a proposed sample retrieval lander and Mars ascent vehicle.

It’s also possible that Perseverance itself is keeping samples on board and delivering them to the lander.

However, the recovery rover isn’t the only spacecraft hitching a ride on the lander. It will also deliver the Mars Ascent Vehicle – the first rocket ever launched from the Martian surface, with the samples safely hidden inside.

A separate mission will launch from Earth in the mid-2020s, called the Earth Return Orbiter, to encounter the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

Onboard the Earth Return Orbiter is the Capture/Containment and Return System, which will collect the sample container from the Mars Ascent Vehicle while both vehicles are in orbit around Mars.

This illustration shows NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle orbiting Mars with the samples on board.

The Earth Return Orbiter will then return to our world. Once the spacecraft is close to Earth, it will release the Earth Entry Vehicle that contains the sample cache, and this spacecraft will land on Earth in the early to mid-2030s.

The robotic components of the campaign are currently being tested at NASA and ESA centers.

In order to land on — and take off from — Mars, the sample return mission needs a flat surface with a radius of 200 feet (60 meters) free of sand dunes, sloping terrain, or rocks higher than 7 .5 inches (19 centimeters) in diameter bulking up the area. Flat, unobstructed terrain will also facilitate sample retrieval by the retrieval rover.

“The Perseverance team has gone all out for us, because Mars Sample Return has unique needs for where we operate,” said Richard Cook, Mars Sample Return program manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. NASA in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement. .

“Essentially, a boring landing spot is good. The flatter and more uninspiring the view, the better we like it, because while there’s a lot to do when we arrive to pick up the samples, tourism doesn’t not part of it.

NASA's Perseverance rover used one of its navigation cameras to capture this image of flat terrain in Jezero Crater.  This is a possible site that NASA could consider for a Mars Sample Return lander.

The sample return team used the rover’s cameras to survey a flat area they call the “airstrip.” The area, long and flat like an airport runway, has already been spotted in images taken by orbiters circling the planet. Perseverance was able to capture a better view from the ground.

“We’ve been monitoring these locations since before Perseverance landed, but orbital imagery can only tell you so much,” said Al Chen, head of engineering and systems integration for Perseverance. Mars samples at JPL, in a statement.

“Now we have some close, personal shots of the airstrip that indicate we were right. The airstrip will most likely be on our shortlist of potential landing and caching sites for (Mars Sample Return).

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