NASA plans to bring back rock samples from Mars by 2033

Story at a glance

  • The announcement comes after NASA’s James Webb telescope delivered a series of early galaxy photos this month, to the delight of viewers around the world.

  • Researchers hope the samples, once delivered, will enable discoveries for future generations. 

  • However, the plan is contingent on funding allotments.

On the heels of the administration’s release of stunning photographs from the James Webb telescope, NASA announced its plans to bring back rock samples from Mars by 2033. 

The Mars Sample Return Program is nearing completion of its conceptual design phase, the agency said in a press release Wednesday. The new mission will allow scientists on Earth to examine the specimens using instruments too large and complex to send to the far-off planet.

This way, future generations will also be able to study the rocks. Moon samples obtained during the Apollo missions are still being studied to test new theories and models decades after they made their way to Earth. 

America is changing faster than ever! Add Changing America to your Facebook or Twitter feed to stay on top of the news.

The Perseverance rover is currently obtaining samples in Mars’ Jezero Crater. The highly sophisticated device was launched on July 30, 2020 and landed on the planet on February 18, 2021. Since its landing, the rover has collected 11 rock core samples and one atmospheric sample.

“The conceptual design phase is when every facet of a mission plan gets put under a microscope,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, in a statement. 

“There are some significant and advantageous changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance’s recent successes at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Mars helicopter,” Zurbuchen continued.

The campaign includes contributions from the European Space Agency (ESA) and is designed to reduce complexity for future missions while increasing the likelihood of success. However, contributions are contingent upon available funding, and more formalized agreements between the agencies are expected to take place within the next year.

“Working together on historic endeavors like Mars Sample Return not only provides invaluable data about our place in the universe but brings us closer together right here on Earth,” said Zurbuchen.

The finalized plan involves Perseverance delivering samples to a retriever equipped with a small rocket, which would then launch into the planet’s orbit and be ferried back to Earth.

ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter is slated to launch in the fall of 2027 with the retriever scheduled to launch the following summer. 

Once the architecture is solidified during the conceptual design phase, the preliminary design phase will begin this October and last around 12 months.

“ESA is continuing at full speed the development of both the Earth Return Orbiter that will make the historic round-trip from Earth to Mars and back again; and the Sample Transfer Arm that will robotically place the sample tubes aboard the Orbiting Sample Container before its launch from the surface of the Red Planet,” said David Parker, director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA in the release.