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The next step in the unprecedented campaign to return scientifically selected samples from Mars was taken on October 19 with a formal agreement between NASA and its partner, the European Space Agency (ESA). The two agencies will begin building a sample tube repository on Mars. The depot or bunker is located in “Three Forks,” an area at the base of an ancient river delta on Jezero Crater.
This cache will contain samples of carefully selected rocks on the surface of Mars – samples that can help tell the story of the history of the Jezero Crater and how Mars evolved, and may also contain signs of ancient life. Scientists believe that well samples of fine-grained sedimentary rocks in the delta — which were deposited in a lake billions of years ago — likely contained indications of microbial life when the climate of Mars was much different than it is today. .
“Never before has a scientifically coordinated sample set from another planet been collected and placed back to Earth,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “NASA and the European Space Agency have reviewed the proposed site and Mars samples that will be published in the cache next month. When the first tube is placed on the surface, it will be a historic moment in space exploration.” The group of monsters – a duplicate of the group that will maintain perseverance – is part of a solid plan to ensure the success of the mission. The Perseverance Vehicle will be the primary means of transporting collected samples to the Mars Launch Vehicle as part of the campaign. The Three Forks deposit will act as a backup for the dual pool.
Sample Tube #266 was used to collect the first Mars sample by NASA’s Perseverance rover. The laser-applied serial number helps the scientific team identify the tubes and their contents.
“Choosing the first repository on Mars makes this exploration campaign very real and tangible. Now we have a place to revisit with samples waiting for us there,” said David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency. “Being able to implement this plan so early in the campaign is a testament to the skill of the international team of engineers and scientists working on perseverance and the return of the Mars sample. The first repository of Mars samples can be seen as an important step for the Mars sample return campaign.”
The first step in the campaign is already underway. Since the Perseverance landing at Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, the rover has explored 13.2 kilometers (13.2 miles) of the surface of Mars and collected 14 core rock samples during its first two science expeditions. During its first expedition, the rover explored the floor of the crater – formerly a lake bed – and found igneous rocks formed deep underground from magma or during volcanic activity at the surface. The second scientific expedition was marked by the investigation of sedimentary rocks formed from particles of various sizes that once settled in a wetland environment.
The rover also collected an atmosphere sample and three witness tubes. Witness tubes contain a substance that helps identify potential ground contamination in the tubes that may have come from the rover during sampling operations.
“While a mission milestone was reached just by dropping these tubes, that doesn’t mean exploration or sample collection is over — far from it,” said Ken Farley, a Caltech project scientist in Pasadena, Calif. “Then we move to the top of the delta, to an area that appears geologically rich from satellite images, to conduct scientific surveys and collect more rock cores. Returning the Martian sample will have a lot of great materials to choose from.”
Another important milestone is that the Mars sample return program has entered the initial design phase and technology (phase B) is finalized on October 1. In this phase, the campaign focuses on completing technology development, technical prototyping, legacy software and hardware evaluations, and other mitigation activities.
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