Scientists at NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are collaborating to return the first samples of soil and rock from another planet to Earth. While samples from the Moon and asteroids have already been returned to Earth, this will be the first attempt to return such samples from Mars.
The two space agencies have already agreed to establish a sample tube depot on Mars at “Three Forks,” a location near the base of an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater. The sample return mission will meet up with Mars’ Perseverance rover.
The Perseverance rover is already storing surface-cored rock and soil samples in its sample casing unit. The samples can help explain the history of Jezero Crater and how Mars evolved, and they may even contain evidence of ancient life.
Cored samples from the delta’s fine-grained sedimentary rocks, which were deposited in the lake billions of years ago, are most likely to contain indicators of whether microbial life existed when Mars’ climate was very different from what it is now.
The Perseverance rover has already begun exploring an area known as “Yori Pass” near the base of Jezero Crater’s ancient river delta, where rock has piqued the scientists’ interest. The sandstone rock is made up of fine grains that have been carried by water from somewhere else before settling and forming a stone.
“In our search for organics and potential biosignatures, we frequently prioritise the study of fine-grained sedimentary rocks like this one. The Yori Pass outcrop is particularly intriguing because it is laterally equivalent to ‘Hogwallow Flats,’ where we discovered very fine-grained sedimentary rocks. That means the rock bed is at the same elevation as Hogwallow and has a large, visible footprint on the surface “Perseverance deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan provided an update.
In addition to the 14 rock-core samples, the rover has collected one atmospheric sample and three witness tubes, which are all stored in the rover’s belly.