NASA approves Mars sample return project for next big phase

NASA and the European Space Agency hope to bring a small piece of Mars back to Earth, a project that just got a big approval to enter Phase A. NASA announced the decision today, stating that the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission will 'mature critical technologies' needed for the effort, among other things.

Bringing samples back to Earth from elsewhere in our Solar System has become an increasingly common activity — China, for example, recently acquired lunar regolith and Japan has successfully retrieved samples from an ancient asteroid. The Red Planet has been a big point of interest for scientists and now it, too, is the subject of a sample return mission.

Under the MSR project, NASA and ESA will develop the Sample Retrieval Lander and Earth Return Orbiter missions, which they hope to launch in the latter half of this decade. The lander will include a Sample Fetch Rover joined by the Mars Ascent Vehicle to retrieve samples and deliver them back to the lander.

A robotic mechanism will be used to transfer the Martian sample to the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will seal the materials and then launch them to the Earth Return Orbiter. The transfer between these two vehicles will take place, after which point the samples will begin their long trip to Earth.

Under the newly approved MSR Phase A, experts will 'mature' the key design and technologies that will make this effort possible. NASA JPL's Mars Sample Return program manager Bobby Braun explained:

Beginning the formulation work of Phase A is a momentous step for our team, albeit one of several to come. These reviews strengthened our plan forward and this milestone signals creation of a tangible approach for MSR built upon the extraordinary capabilities of the NASA centers, our ESA partners, and industry.