Mars 2020: Ambitious $7 billion space mission to bring just half kilogram of rocks from the Red Planet

The complex mission will entail a rover collecting rock samples from the planet, getting it on a rocket to put it in Mars' orbit and then capturing it in a spaceship that will bring it to Earth


                            Mars 2020: Ambitious $7 billion space mission to bring just half kilogram of rocks from the Red Planet

The Mars Curiosity rover is no match to what the upcoming NASA's Mars 2020 mission is capable of doing. For the first time ever, the mission will send back rock samples from the Red planet, allowing scientists to extensively study them back home.

The Mars 2020 mission -- a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) -- is scheduled for launch in July 2020. Costing $7billion, both space agencies hope to bring back just half a kilogram of rocks to Earth -- a feat that will take more than a decade to achieve.

"It is as complicated as sending humans to the Moon," Brian Muirhead, lead MSR planner at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California told Science.

“Mars 2020 will collect soil samples, put them in small metal tubes, then seal them,” Sanjay Vijendran, a lead member of ESA’s Mars Sample Return team told The Guardian. The mission will involve blasting heavy rocket from Earth, which will send two rovers to Mars. After landing, the 10-foot-long car-sized rover will comb through a region on Mars and collect rock samples. The rover will leave caches of these tubes at designated sites on the Martian surface, adds Vijendran.

After landing, the 10-foot-long car-sized rover will comb through a region in Mars and collect rock samples. The rover will leave caches of these tubes at designated sites on the Martian surface, adds Vijendran. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

These samples will then be collected by ESA's fetch rover and taken to a US rocket that will blast the container into orbit around Mars. After being captured by a robot spaceship called the Earth-return orbiter, these samples will be ferried back to the empty Utah desert, making it the last step in the mission.

"The mission involves an incredibly complex sequence of manoeuvres, and there’s so much that could go wrong. However, if we want to find evidence that there was once life on Mars, this is the sort of thing we are going to have to do. It will be worth the effort," Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist at the University of Westminster, London, told The Guardian.

Through the Mars 2020 mission, scientists will try to unravel the mystery around the Red planet, which once had the necessary conditions to support life. From having a thick atmosphere and running water on its surface, the planet has transformed into a dry place today. The mission could answer whether Mars hosted life when its conditions were ripe.

To do so, scientists have zeroed in on Jezero Crater on Mars - once home to an ancient river delta. According to NASA, the crater could be the perfect site to look for fossil records of microbes.

All eyes are on Mars mission now.

"With momentum building for much more Mars exploration—including human visitors—chances are waning to study the planet while it is pristine. I hope we don't miss the chance to catch this train. If we don't step in now, we will miss this unique moment," Maria-Paz Zorzano of the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid told Science.

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