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NASA: Mars rocks won't make it back to Earth until 2033

Cute that they think the human race will still be here when Perseverance's samples arrive

Martian rock samples collected by NASA's Perseverance rover won't arrive on Earth until 2033 – as they'll need an orbiter and lander sent out toward the end of the decade to fetch them, the US space agency said Wednesday.

Launched in 2020, Perseverance has been roaming around on Mars and is right now at the Jezero crater looking for interesting rock specimens. Armed with several instruments – including lasers and spectrometers to analyze materials, as well as a drill and sample tubes – Perseverance has stashed 12 collections so far, of which 11 contain rocks and one contains gases from the planet's atmosphere.

These bits of Martian regolith, however, have to be gathered and carried back to Earth for scientists to study. NASA is working with the European Space Agency for the Mars Sample Return Program, which involves launches of the Earth Return Orbiter in 2027 and a Sample Retrieval Lander in 2028. Engineers will start developing prototype technologies for design specifications in October. 

The Mars Sample Return Program is a multi-step process. First, the Earth Return Orbiter system will be launched to Mars in 2027 and circle the Red Planet while it waits for the Sample Retrieval Lander to launch a year later and carry out its mission. 

Two helicopters, modeled on the Ingenuity marvel, will be sent to Mars via the lander. The helicopters will look for the samples and fly them back to the lander, where a robotic Sample Transfer Arm will hopefully grab the tubes and place them safely in a container system inside a capsule. The capsule, in turn, will be stored aboard a rocket – the Mars Ascent Vehicle – to be carried into orbit.

Next, the Earth Return Orbiter will retrieve the floating capsule using its Capture/Containment and Return System and place it inside the Earth Entry Vehicle. All of these parts will be carried by the Earth Return Orbiter, which will fly back home. The Earth Entry Vehicle will then be ejected – it has a heat shield that will protect the sample tubes as they enter Earth's atmosphere from space – and land safely in 2033.

If everything goes to plan. It has of course long been understood that the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.

The Mars Sample Return Program initially planned for a second rover to be carried by the Sample Retrieval Lander to help fetch the samples. However, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, revealed that the idea for the rover has been scrapped. Only the two aforementioned helicopters will be in charge of retrieving the samples. 

"The conceptual design phase is when every facet of a mission plan gets put under a microscope," Zurbuchen explained in a statement. "There are some significant and advantageous changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance's recent successes at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Mars helicopter."

The Ingenuity helicopter, on which the sample retrieval helicopters will be based, has performed 29 flights on Mars and survived over a year beyond its original planned lifetime.

Once the samples get to Earth, scientists will look for physical and chemical evidence that Mars may have once supported an environment that hosted simple life forms, like alien microbes. With any luck, the Earth will still be capable at that point of hosting complex life forms, like scientists. ®

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