NASA and ESA are ready for an ambitious Mars sample return mission

NASA has announced that its Mars Sample Return (MSR) Independent Review Board (IRB) has found that it is ready to launch a campaign that will bring a Mars sample back to Earth for study. The review involved evaluating NASA's 'early concepts' for the sample return campaign, a mission that will include the European Space Agency.

NASA recently collected a physical sample from the asteroid Bennu, but no space agency has yet collected and returned a sample from another planet. NASA and ESA hope to change that with a Mars sample collection campaign, which will — if it is successful — result in the delivery of a 'pristine' sample from the Red Planet for scientists to analyze.

Under its current plan, NASA says the Mars Sample Return mission will require a total of three vehicles, the first of which is the Perseverance rover already on its way to the Red Planet. The ESA will develop and launch a rover designed to 'fetch' collection tubes full of regolith deposited by NASA's rover.

The ESA's rover will then deliver the sample collection tubes to NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle, ultimately sending the samples into orbit to be collected by the ESA's Earth Return Orbiter. The collection tubes will be secured in the Earth Return Orbiter's 'highly secure containment capsule' to be shipped back to Earth.

Assuming all of this goes as planned, NASA says the ESA's sample return effort would bring the material to Earth sometime in the 2030s. The MSR IRB evaluated this concept, concluding that NASA is ready for such an undertaking. The space agency says that though this effort will leverage decades of work, NASA experts have spent the past three years in particular maturing the concept with the future mission in mind.

It will take the 'next several years' for NASA to plan the mission. The IRB's evaluation is available for anyone to read on NASA's reports website.