Perseverance is finally rolling around the Martian surface after arriving last month, and NASA hopes to cover a lot of ground as it searches for evidence of life. The rover won’t do all the science itself, though. Part of its mission is to collect samples that will eventually make their way back to Earth, and NASA just awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman to build part of the return system. Specifically, the long-time government contractor will develop the Mars Ascent Propulsion System (MAPS).
The Perseverance rover is just the first part of a three-stage plan to get pieces of Mars back to Earth. As the rover travels around Mars, it will use its robotic arm and drill to collect, photograph, and store samples in special ultra-clean metal tubes. The rover doesn’t have any way to get these samples off the surface, but that’s where the second phase comes in.
To get those samples into space, NASA is working on a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). The MAPS contract awarded to Northrop Grumman covers just the rocket that will launch from the MAV with the samples safely inside, but arguably, that’s the most important part of the mission. Mars has just one-third of Earth’s gravity, which will allow the MAPS to be smaller and more compact than rockets that launch on Earth.
The MAV will also have a sample fetch rover that will pick up the tubes from Perseverance and bring them back to the MAV. If successful, the MAPS system will be the first rocket ever launched from the surface of another planet. The contract has a total value of $84.5 million. Work on the project will begin immediately with a 14-month timeline for initial design and testing.
Once the samples are in orbit, NASA will need to send a third mission to Mars to pick up the payload and send it back to Earth. JPL fellow and Mars 2020 chief engineer Adam Steltzner believes it should be possible to return the Mars samples in 10-12 years.
Getting some bits of Mars back to Earth in pristine condition could vastly expand our understanding of the dusty world. While rovers like Perseverance and Curiosity can do incredible in-situ science, some instruments can’t be miniaturized and stuffed into a rocket. Researchers on Earth can also come up with new ways to study the samples without needing to wait for another Mars mission to take their experiment into space.
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