Rock 'n rove: UK scientists on daring Mars mission
British team is after Martian soil, but bringing alien samples back to Earth is fraught with risks
British scientists are launching a daring mission to Mars to bring back samples of Martian soil which could prove that life once existed on the Red Planet.
In 2020, Nasa’s new rover will land on Mars and begin drilling into the surface for core samples.
But it is experts at Airbus in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, who have been tasked with getting the precious cargo back to Earth.
The team is designing a second rover that will launch in 2026 to collect Nasa’s samples, load them onto a rocket and fire them into orbit to be collected by a spacecraft and brought home.
Bringing alien samples back to Earth is fraught with risks that Martian bacteria or viruses could escape, so scientists are designing a re-entry module that can withstand crash-landing at 2,000 g-force and speeds of up to 38,000km/h in the Utah desert.
Alastair Wayman, advanced projects engineer at Airbus, said: “If you design the re-entry system to rely on parachutes softening the landing and they fail, as has happened before, then it will land, it will crack, and you will ruin the samples.
“They are mostly worried about contamination, like when a cold killed the aliens in War of the Worlds. They are worried about that in the opposite direction. So the re-entry module will do a hard landing. It’s difficult but it’s workable.
“The samples will need to be in quarantine. There are new facilities that are going to have to be built which are modelled on the labs that handle dangerous diseases like anthrax, as at the minute we don’t know what these samples are going to be like. The default is to be very careful with them.”
The €4.45m (R78.46m) project has been commissioned by the European Space Agency (ESA), which is working alongside Nasa on the sample return mission.
The Mars 2020 rover will break new ground, literally, by not only looking for signs of habitable conditions on Mars, but also digging down beneath the surface to search for evidence of ancient microbial life.
Nasa’s rover will drive to dozens of different locations collecting samples and leaving them in pen-sized tubes in depots on the planet’s surface.
The Mars Sample Return lander is due to leave in 2026 carrying the retrieval rover, which will travel about 16km collecting the 36 cores.
“We’ll then bring them back to the lander and park in front of it and on board there there will be a robotic arm which will grab the samples from us, and transfer them to the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which is a essentially a big rocket,” added Wayman.
After the MAV has launched it will release a basketball-sized sphere containing the samples for collection by the ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter, which opens its huge jaws to capture the metal ball.
Wayman said: “That part not only has to grab it, it has to make sure that there is no contamination from the surface of the Mars rover that is transferred onto parts that will come back to Earth so it’s quite a complex procedure to do that.
“The Earth Return Orbiter brings it back to Earth and this has on it a re-entry capsule that it will release and come back through the atmosphere.”
It is hoped the samples will be back on Earth by 2030 where they can be analysed by state-of-the-art equipment which is too big to send to Mars to carry out tests in situ.
Although Martian meteorites have landed on Earth before, they heat up so much entering the atmosphere that most of the useful information is wiped out. One of the other puzzles facing scientists is how to keep the samples at no more than 30°C.
Neither Britain nor the ESA has successfully landed on Mars before, with both the Beagle 2 and Schiaparelli probes crashing on to the planet.
David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at ESA, said: “Bringing samples back from Mars is essential in more than one way.
“Firstly, to understand why Mars, although it is the planet that is most similar to Earth, took a very different evolutionary path than Earth, and secondly to fully comprehend the Martian environment in order to allow humans to one day work and live on the Red Planet.”
– © The Daily Telegraph