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  • Mars sample return has been a high priority for the scientific community for a long timeThe

  • dark comedy sort of joke has always been that Mars sample return is 10 to 15 years away,

  • no matter what year it is. So here we are, we actually have a mission, it's built, it's

  • sitting at the Cape, it's getting ready to be launched. That will be the first stage

  • in returning samples from Mars. It's just huge. It's an Apollo 11 type mission, because

  • of the unique properties of Mars, because of the whole question of, "Has life ever existed

  • anywhere else?" All of those things are all wrapped up into this particular mission.

  • The question of whether any environments on Mars were habitable or are habitable today is really

  • what drives thingsThere's this remarkable global climatic change that occurred right

  • around three and a half to four billion years ago on Mars that took it from a planet that

  • probably was habitable  to something that's desolate and dry and irradiated at the surface

  • with a thin atmosphere nowThe really interesting thing is to do this comparative planetary

  • geology to say, well, why did the Earth evolve the way it did with abundant life? And why

  • did Mars evolve the way it did in its own unique way? To find answers to these questions,

  • scientists use orbiters, landers, rovers, and recovered Martian rocks that can survive

  • the trip down to Earth. I'm sitting in the University of Alberta, Meteorite Curation

  • Facility. It's a lab that I built and designed, where we have a clean room, which you can

  • see over my shoulder here. It's the sort of glassed in area and the rock cabinets in there

  • have about 1800 specimens of different meteorites from around the worldThe Martian meteorites

  • are a unique set of rocks that have been blasted off the surface of Mars, naturallyThere's

  • 140 or more meteorites and over 80% of them are basically lava flows that float out on

  • the surface of Mars in the last few hundred million years. Now Mars is four and a half

  • billion years old. So there's a whole history there that's missing because of a bias in

  • the way that these samples are delivered to usAnd that's what makes this upcoming launch

  • an ambitious new chapter in Mars explorationIt's the first step in a series of proposed missions

  • over the span of a decade to bring samples back, with all of the source materialThe

  • idea is to go to a place where the rocks are of that age of at least three and a half billion

  • years, so that we can probe those for evidence for ancient life. The landing site is Jezero

  • CraterIt's a remarkable 45 kilometer diameter crater that was filled with water, had a river

  • flowing into it and a river flowing out of it in a key timeframe in Mars' historyThere

  • are mineral signatures that have been detected from orbit, including carbonate. And carbonate

  • is a mineral that life can sometimes use, as part of producing, say a hard shellThose

  • rocks are beautifully preserved. You can see them from orbit. And that's the real reason

  • why this was chosen.

  • The whole idea is to get a cache of samples that are so compelling

  • to the scientific community, that the space agencies could do nothing less than spend

  • the money to basically bring everything back. That's a tall order for this new rover,

  • but luckily, NASA's engineering teams are experts at building capable robot geologistsMars

  • 2020, the advancement is adding the sample caching system. We have a bit carousel that

  • holds all of our various bits or tools that we have for working on Mars. We have a five

  • degree of freedom robotic arm that's on the outside of the rover that allows us to not

  • only dock for tool exchange but also for placing some of the science instrumentsThe drill

  • is able to not only be the jackhammer where it actually takes out the sample from the

  • rock, but it's also able to do very delicate tool drop-offs. It's a very complex system.

  • This is the inside of Building 248 on the NASA JPL campusIt's where Eric and his

  • team put the sample caching system to the testSo in order to really make sure that

  • the system's going to work, we always try to emulate the environment that we're going

  • to work inWe have a Geo analog team that allows us to collect rocks something approximately

  • close to what we might see on Mars. We created this unique test setup, where we're able

  • to be in a thermal vacuum chamber, that allows us to get down to the Mars pressure. We have

  • to make sure that we've learned how to get the teeth of the drill just right to get a

  • sampleOur testing over time has been an iterative process that helped us design a

  • better, more reliable sampling system.

  • The targeted launch window for this rover is July

  • through Aug 2020, with a landing date of February 2021. After it survives the trip to Mars

  • and sticks the perilous landing, the rover will take some time to get situatedThere's

  • usually a commissioning period It's been a long ride and everything's just kind of unfolding

  • and getting itself readyAt that point, they want to start taking advantage of where

  • they're at. Where did we land? What can we seeThe main approach  is to look at a

  • region of interest do a walkaboutWe have cameras that are able to get the mineral signatures

  • of rocks. We have the super cam, which is essentially a laser that can zap the rocks a few meters

  • away, and tell you what they're made of, which I just love that. It's fantasticThat one

  • has a microphone attached to it now too. So we'll be able to hear the rocks getting zapped

  • from a distance which is pretty awesomeThere is going to have to be a certain balance between

  • the desire to completely explore and then decide from there what samples you're going

  • to get. We're trying to keep everything within a one Martian year, which is about two years

  • Earth time to get all the samples collectedThere is a pace that the science and operations

  • team are working to. There's 43 tubes 37 is the number that we expect to bring backOur

  • job is to put a sample in every tube and the scientists will have to choose which ones

  • to leave behind. So we hope to give them a really tough decision. I'm really looking

  • forward to those conversations when we're doing the mission operations. We've got a

  • bit of a hint of it a couple of months ago, when we were all working remotely on a simulated

  • rover mission, where the folks from NASA JPL went out to the Nevada desert and set up a

  • bunch of instruments, and made it look like the Rover was thereAnd the discussions

  • about what to sample were absolutely fascinating. Something that would be really compelling

  • would be like a mudstone, like a really fine grain rock that was deposited within the delta,

  • that has lots of organic matter in itAnother really compelling thing, of course, would

  • be these carbonate rocks. So this whole discussion about, would you, should you collect that

  • particular sample, or should you explore moreAfter some careful decisions, the rover will start

  • cachingOnce we've taken a rock from the ground and it's in the tube, the sample handling

  • arm, inside the belly of the rover will actually go and pull the sample out and start to process

  • it. The autonomy that's built into the system is fairly incredible there's a lot of closed

  • loop motor control activitiesOnce we actually expose a sterile tube to the Martian atmosphere,

  • we have a five hour timeline to actually get it sealedContamination is a critical part

  • of our mission. We don't want to take any organics with usThis is something that

  • feels like a Sci Fi movie but it's reality. The plan is to drop off the samples in bunches

  • around Mars where a future mission would land and use a fetch rover to go and pick them

  • up. They'll be installed into a Mars ascent vehicle, which will then launch off of Mars

  • into a Martian orbit where another mission would come rendezvous and pick up the sampleAnd

  • then that orbiter would then turn back and head back towards EarthThe current plans

  • are for the samples to be returned to Earth in 2031. There's a small, but non zero chance

  • that there is extant life that could come back with the samples. And so that's where

  • the other part of Mars sample return is really important, which is the sample receiving facility.

  • And then the design of that is going to be next level kind of stuff though, because the

  • same time that we're trying to keep whatever is in the samples from getting out into the

  • Earth environment, we're also trying to keep the Earth environment from getting into the

  • samples. I'm one of 10 people selected as a Return Sample scientist, through a NASA

  • call. These are all people, like myself, who have experience in the lab with samples of

  • meteoritesYou know, age 13, I think, I said I want to be there when the samples come

  • back and it's a dream come true to really be involved as a return sample scientist,

  • as someone who is an expert in what you do with the samples when they come back.

  • I sure hope I'll be able to see them. I'm going to have my favorites. They are going to be curated

  • under the best possible conditions and preserved indefinitely for generations to comeEach

  • one of those will be scrutinized like you wouldn't believe, the way that all the Apollo

  • samples have been scrutinized for 50 or more years, now with the added bonus, of course,

  • that we're actually going to an environment that could potentially have been habitable.

  • To hopefully answer the big question: was there life on Mars? I don't really have a

  • good answer for that but another way to look at that question is to say, well, if we don't

  • find life that's a significant step toward understanding what life is all about. And

  • how unique it is, for example, for the EarthOn the flip side, if we do find evidence for

  • ancient microbial life it just opens that door to life being incredibly abundant throughout

  • the whole universe on these almost infinite number of planets that are being discovered

  • in our galaxy and beyond.

Mars sample return has been a high priority for the scientific community for a long timeThe

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NASA’s Ambitious Mission to Bring Martian Samples to Earth

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    Summer posted on 2020/09/09
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