Perseverance to establish a sample cache for later return to Earth

WASHINGTON — NASA and the European Space Agency have chosen a location on Mars to cache samples collected by the Perseverance rover, a step in the overall process of returning those samples to Earth.

NASA announced Oct. 28 that the agencies had agreed to deposit some of the 14 samples collected by Perseverance to date at a location dubbed “Three Forks” in Jezero Crater, near the remnants of an ancient river delta that once flowed into the crater. These samples, enclosed in metal tubes, will be recovered to be returned to Earth by subsequent missions.

“NASA and ESA have reviewed the proposed site and Mars samples that will be deployed for this cache starting next month. When this first tube is positioned on the surface, it will be a historic moment in space exploration,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said in a statement.

The sample cache is part of a revised strategy for the global Mars Sample Return campaign announced in July. This strategy removes a European “seeker” rover that was to retrieve samples cached by Perseverance. Instead, it will rely on Perseverance as its primary means of returning samples to a future lander, which will then launch them into orbit to be picked up by an ESA orbiter for return to Earth.

This cache serves as a backup if Perseverance cannot return to the lander. This lander will have two small helicopters, based on the Ingenuity helicopter accompanying Perseverance, that will fly to the cache, collect sample tubes, and bring them back to the lander.

“The deposit is a risk mitigation if the rover doesn’t make the long journey” to the lander, said Francois Spoto, head of the Mars Exploration Group at ESA, during a presentation on the return of Mars samples to the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Paris in September. 20.

Perseverance took duplicate samples from each site so that one set could be kept on Perseverance and the other deposited in the cache. “Once we’ve done that, we’ll stop double-sampling and continue building the cache to hold on Perseverance,” Jeff Gramling, Mars Sample Return program manager at NASA, said during the IAC presentation.

In the sample cache plans announcement, NASA also said that on October 1, the Mars Sample Return program entered Phase B, which covers preliminary design work and completion of key technologies needed to future lander mission.

NASA and ESA officials have remained reluctant to discuss the costs of Mars’ revised sample return architecture, including cost savings resulting from the removal of the recovery rover and a second lander. who would have delivered it. NASA typically does not provide formal cost and schedule estimates for a mission until it is ready to enter Phase C, where the design is finalized and component manufacturing begins.

When asked about the costs of Mars Sample Return during their IAC presentation, neither Gramling nor Spoto gave a specific cost or cost range. However, they estimated that ESA’s share would be 15-20% of the overall cost.

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