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  • Writer's pictureMatt Russell

#230 - Mars Month 5

In part five Mars month Special, Linn joins as host to discuss with Matt how Mars formed and how Sample Return will help us understand more about the red planet.

“For it was their world, not Man’s. However he might shape it for his own purposes, it would be his duty always to safeguard the interests of its rightful owners. No one could tell what part they might have to play in the history of the universe. And when, as was one day inevitable, Man himself came to the notice of yet higher races, he might well be judged by his behaviour here on Mars.”
Arthur C. Clarke, The Sands of Mars

Mars Month part 5 - The Science

How Mars lost its atmosphere due to loss of magnetic field

  • Sun/Earth/Mars solar system all formed roughly at the same time (I can explain roughly how). Sun ~4.6 bil years ago, Earth/Mars ~4.5 bil years ago.

  • Mars probably had water ~4-3 billion years ago very early on

  • We always talked about how what probably happened was that it lost its magnetic field, got exposed to radiation, and lost it that way

  • But (very) new evidence also talks about retreating water into crust Water on Mars May Be Trapped in the Planet’s Crust, Not Lost to Space

  • The red colour is due to iron oxide i.e. rust!

  • We know it had a magnetic field because minerals in rocks are aligned with the field

  • Aurora is formed on Earth because of the magnetic field. Green = nitrogen mostly? Red = oxygen mostly? Depends on altitude. Colours:

  • TLDR: aurora = charged particles from solar winds interacting with our atmosphere. Similar to the process that makes neon signs glow! “Although most of the solar wind is blocked by the magnetosphere, some of the ions become briefly trapped in ring-shaped holding areas around the planet. These areas, in a region of the atmosphere called the ionosphere, are centred around the Earth’s geomagnetic poles. In the ionosphere, the ions of the solar wind collide with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen from the Earth’s atmosphere. The energy released during these collisions causes a colourful glowing halo around the poles—an aurora. Most auroras happen about 97-1,000 kilometres (60-620 miles) above the Earth’s surface.”

The sample return mission with ESA;

Sample-return would be a very powerful type of exploration because the analysis is freed from the time, budget, and space constraints of spacecraft sensors.

Mars sample-return mission is often described by the planetary science community as one of the most important robotic space missions

  • High expected scientific return on investment

  • Ability to prove the technology needed for a human mission to Mars.

The three latest concepts for an MSR mission are a NASA-ESA proposal, a Russian proposal (Mars-Grunt), and a Chinese proposal.


  • In mid-2006, the International Mars Architecture for the Return of Samples (iMARS) Working Group was chartered by the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG) to outline the scientific and engineering requirements of an internationally sponsored and executed Mars sample-return mission in the 2018–2023 time frame


  • October 2009, NASA and ESA established the Mars Exploration Joint Initiative to proceed with the ExoMars program, whose ultimate aim is "the return of samples from Mars in the 2020s

  • ExoMars' first mission would launch in 2018 with unspecified missions to return samples in the 2020–2022 time frame.

  • The cancellation of the caching rover MAX-C, and later NASA withdrawal from ExoMars, pushed back a sample-return mission to an undetermined date.

  • Due to budget limitations the MAX-C mission was cancelled in 2011, and the overall cooperation in 2012


  • In April 2018, a letter of intent was signed by NASA and ESA that may provide a basis for a Mars sample-return mission

  • July 2019, a mission architecture was proposed to return samples to Earth by 2031

  • In April 2020, an updated version of the mission was presented.

  • November 2020, NASA released MSR Independent Review Board (IRB) report giving the full green light

  • David Thompson, retired president and CEO of Orbital ATK, chaired the IRB, which interviewed experts across NASA and ESA, industry and academia, and made 44 recommendations to address potential areas of concern regarding the program’s scope and management, technical approach, schedule, and funding profile.

  • “The MSR campaign is a highly ambitious, technically demanding, and multi-faceted planetary exploration program with extraordinary scientific potential for world-changing discoveries, After a thorough review of the agency’s planning over the past several years, the IRB unanimously believes that NASA is now ready to carry out the MSR program, the next step for robotic exploration of Mars.”


  • The Perseverance rover will collect samples and leave them behind on the surface for later retrieval.

  • July 2026, a lander with a two-stage, solid-fueled Mars ascent Vehicle (developed by NASA) and a sample collection rover (developed by ESA) (or may be on two separate landers or a dual lander probe) lands near the Mars 2020 rover in August 2028.

  • The new rover collects the samples left behind by Mars 2020 and delivers them to the ascent rocket. If Mars 2020 is still operational, it could also deliver samples to the landing site.

  • Once loaded with the samples, the Mars ascent rocket will launch with the sample return canister in spring 2029 and reach a low Mars orbit.

  • The ESA-built Earth-return orbiter launches on an Ariane 6 booster in October 2026 and arrives at Mars in 2027, using ion propulsion to gradually lower its orbit to the proper altitude by July 2028.

  • The orbiter will retrieve the canister with the samples in orbit and return it to Earth during the 2031 Mars-to-Earth transfer window.

  • The sample return canister, encapsulated within the Earth re-entry module, lands on Earth later in 2031.

So MSR campaign will require three advanced space vehicles. The first, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, is already there with its sophisticated sampling system, coring drill and sample tubes that are the cleanest hardware ever sent to space.

“Mars Sample Return is something NASA needs to do as a leading member of the global community,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We know there are challenges ahead, but that’s why we look closely at these architectures. And that’s why in the end, we achieve the big accomplishments.”

NASA has awarded the Mars Ascent Propulsion System (MAPS) contract to Northrop Grumman to provide propulsion support and products

After the successful touchdown of the Mars Perseverance rover, we are one step closer to realizing Mars Sample Return (MSR), Work on MAPS begins immediately, 4 March 2021, with a 14-month base period, followed by two option periods that may be exercised at NASA's discretion (see photo)

In the next steps of the MSR campaign, NASA and ESA will provide components for a Sample Retrieval Lander mission and an Earth Return Orbiter mission.

The Sample Retrieval Lander mission will deliver a Sample Fetch Rover and Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to the surface of Mars.

Marshall is responsible for the MSR Program's Mars Ascent Vehicle element, which is a two-stage vehicle that will be a critical element in supporting MSR to retrieve and return the samples that the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will collect for return to Earth.

The Martian environment will be a significant factor in the design, development, manufacturing, testing, and qualification of two different solid rocket motors with multiple deliveries of each. Through the MAPS contract, Northrop Grumman will provide the propulsion systems for the MAV, as well as other supporting equipment and logistics services.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science “Ultimately, I believe this sample return will be well worth the effort and help us answer key astrobiology questions about the Red Planet – bringing us one step closer to our eventual goal of sending humans to Mars.”

Planetary Protection

  • back contamination — the introduction of extraterrestrial organisms into Earth's biosphere

  • The proposed NASA Mars sample-return mission will not be approved by NASA until the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process has been completed

  • Offending Nation responsible and liable for all damages under the outer space treaty.

  • prevent contact between the Martian environment and the exterior of the sample container

  • In order to eliminate the risk of parachute failure, the current plan is to use the thermal protection system to cushion the capsule upon impact (at terminal velocity). The sample container will be designed to withstand the force of the impact.

  • To receive the returned samples, NASA proposed a specially designed Biosafety Level 4 containment facility, the Mars Sample-Return Receiving facility (MSRRF).

  • Not knowing what properties (e.g., size) any Martian organisms might exhibit is a complication in design of such a facility.[70]

Other scientists and engineers, notably Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society, argued in the fringe Journal of Cosmology that contamination risk is functionally zero and there is little need to worry. They cite, among other things, lack of any verifiable incident although trillions of kilograms of material have been exchanged between Mars and Earth due to meteorite impacts.

The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR) is a small advocacy group led by Barry DiGregorio, who campaigns against a Mars sample-return mission. While ICAMSR acknowledges a low probability for biohazards, it considers the proposed containment measures insufficient, and unsafe at this stage. ICAMSR is demanding more in situ studies on Mars first, and preliminary biohazard testing at the International Space Station before the samples are brought to Earth

DiGregorio supports the conspiracy theory of a NASA coverup regarding the discovery of microbial life by the 1976 Viking landers

DiGregorio also supports a fringe view that several pathogens - such as common viruses originate in space and probably caused some of the mass extinctions, and deadly pandemics.

These claims connecting terrestrial disease and extraterrestrial pathogens have been rejected by the scientific community

The Sample-Return Robot Challenge,

NASA's Centennial Challenges program offered a total US$1.5 million to teams that can build fully autonomous robots that can find, retrieve, and return up to 10 different sample types within a large outdoor environment (80,000 m2) The challenge started in 2012 and ended in 2016. Over 50 teams competed during the 5-year duration of the competition. A robot named Cataglyphis, developed by Team Mountaineers from West Virginia University completed the final challenge in 2016.

“NASA is committed to mission success and taking on great challenges for the benefit of humanity, and one way we do that is by ensuring we are set up to succeed as early as possible,” said

NASA initiated the IRB in mid-August to ensure the long-awaited mission is positioned for success. It is the earliest independent review of any NASA Science Mission Directorate large strategic mission. Historically, such reviews have not occurred until much later in the program development.

David Thompson, retired president and CEO of Orbital ATK, chaired the IRB, which comprised 10 experienced leaders from scientific and engineering fields. The board, which met during 25 sessions from August to October of this year, interviewed experts across NASA and ESA, as well as in industry and academia, and made 44 recommendations to address potential areas of concern regarding the program’s scope and management, technical approach, schedule, and funding profile.

“The MSR campaign is a highly ambitious, technically demanding, and multi-faceted planetary exploration program with extraordinary scientific potential for world-changing discoveries,” said Thompson. “After a thorough review of the agency’s planning over the past several years, the IRB unanimously believes that NASA is now ready to carry out the MSR program, the next step for robotic exploration of Mars.”

The IRB found that NASA has developed a feasible concept and a broad set of architectural options to inform the planning of the MSR campaign over the next several years and recommends the MSR program proceed. It also highlighted the excellent progress the agency has achieved over the past several years and further emphasized the potential for this program to enable civilization-scale scientific discoveries underscoring that the technology is available now.

“The independent review has given strong support to MSR, which is great news for the campaign,” says ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration, David Parker. “It reinforces our shared vision to provide the world’s scientists with pristine pieces of the Red Planet to study using laboratory tools and techniques that we could never take to Mars.”

The IRB provided its findings and recommendations to NASA for consideration to better position the program for success. NASA has agreed to address and study all of the board’s recommendations in the next year as it moves through early formulation efforts, well in advance of the agency’s confirmation decision

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