In the foreseeable future, Mars is set to witness an extraordinary interplanetary endeavor. Picture a small rover on the Martian surface collecting ancient rock samples left behind by a prior mission. These invaluable specimens will be loaded into a rocket perched on a platform, poised for liftoff. But here’s the twist: the platform will catapult the rocket into the sky, akin to a quarterback’s throw. As the rocket ascends into Martian orbit, a waiting spacecraft will gather the precious cargo, ferrying them back to Earth for eager scientists to scrutinize. This remarkable feat is dubbed Mars Sample Return.
“This is uncharted territory,” remarks Chris Chatellier from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the lead engineer of the launch system. Yet, it’s a dream that has been nurtured and meticulously planned for decades.
The Mars Sample Collection
The odyssey commenced with NASA’s Perseverance rover, which touched down in Jezero Crater on Mars just a year ago. Perseverance’s mission is to explore this ancient river delta, a prime locale to hunt for traces of ancient Martian life. Utilizing its extendable arm and drill, Perseverance has begun gathering samples dating back billions of years. These samples could contain clues about the existence of life on Mars in eons past.
Perseverance will secure these samples in compact tubes on the Martian surface, awaiting eventual retrieval. While the blueprint for this collection is mostly outlined, critical specifics remain uncertain. Where and how many locations will the samples be stashed? What will the “fetch rover,” constructed by the European Space Agency (ESA), entail? Most crucially, how will the samples be launched off Mars and returned to Earth? “This off-planet launch will make history,” asserts NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen, promising revelations about our neighboring planet.
The Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV)
Now, the spotlight shifts to the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a three-meter-long rocket tasked with propelling Perseverance’s samples into orbit. Lockheed Martin, a prominent U.S. aerospace company, secured a $194-million contract from NASA to construct the MAV. Designing the MAV poses a formidable challenge, as it must surmount the unique conditions of Mars. Mars’s gravitational pull is just a third of Earth’s, and its sparse atmosphere presents a challenge, unlike any launch from Earth or airless celestial bodies.
The MAV must also operate autonomously and flawlessly for its make-or-break launch, transpiring millions of kilometers from Earth. NASA intends to dispatch the MAV to Mars in 2026 or later. The journey to Mars is slated to span 28 months to ensure a safe landing during the Martian summer near Jezero. Avoiding dust storms is paramount for a successful landing.
Preparations for Launch
Upon reaching Mars, the MAV will be housed within a landing platform, akin to prior missions. The platform not only ensures the protection of the MAV on the surface but also serves as the launching site for ESA’s fetch rover. Then arrives the pivotal moment of sending the sample-laden MAV back into orbit.
One hurdle is preventing the MAV’s aluminum-based fuel from freezing on the frigid Martian surface, where temperatures average about -60 degrees Celsius. Engineers are devising a remarkable strategy to maintain the temperature of the MAV by using solar-powered electric heaters within an insulated “igloo”. With this ingenious plan, the MAV will be able to patiently await the arrival of the fetch rover for an entire year.
The Unique Launch System: VECTOR
Launching a rocket from Mars is no small feat. Engineers at JPL have devised an innovative launch system named VECTOR (Vertically Ejected Controlled Tip-Off Release). Instead of a conventional launch rail, the MAV will be propelled several meters above the surface, providing ample clearance for liftoff. This “cold launch” approach streamlines the design and testing process.
The VECTOR system will propel the MAV upwards at a speed of around five meters per second, giving a boost to its trajectory just as its engine comes to life one second after takeoff. By rotating, the MAV will elevate itself at a 45-degree angle, enabling the two-stage rocket to propel the sample capsule into a Mars orbit situated 400 kilometers above the planet’s surface. Perseverance, stationed at a safe distance, will bear witness to this historic Martian launch.
The Journey Back to Earth
If all proceeds as planned, a European-made spacecraft will retrieve the sample capsule in Martian orbit. After departing Mars, the capsule will deliberately crash-land in the Utah desert in the early 2030s, preserving its rugged samples.
In the end, this audacious plan, though deceptively straightforward, holds the potential to yield invaluable insights into Martian history. Even if no traces of life are uncovered in the samples, the achievement will be nothing short of historic. “We’re constantly enthralled by this,” enthuses Angela Jackman, project manager of the MAV program. “What we’re about to accomplish is simply astounding.” So, keep an eye out for the most epic interplanetary catch in history!