What is the $194 million vehicle that will bring rocks from Mars to Earth?

By | February 8, 2022

As the Perseverance rover, in tandem with its flying partner Ingenuity helicopter, continues to drill the surface of Mars for signs of ancient microbial life, work on returning first samples from the alien world is underway on Earth. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin to build a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) that will blast from the Martian surface with rock and regolith samples.

The latest contract brings work around returning samples from another planet closer to reality as Perseverance looks for unique samples that will be studied by scientists on Earth.

“This groundbreaking endeavor is destined to inspire the world when the first robotic round-trip mission retrieves a sample from another planet a significant step that will ultimately help send the first astronauts to Mars,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

Lockheed Martin will provide multiple MAV test units and a flight unit under the $194 million contract.

WHAT IS MARS ASCENT VEHICLE (MVA)?

The Mars Ascent Vehicle is a small, lightweight rocket to launch rock, sediment, and atmospheric samples from the surface of the Red Planet. A crucial part of the sample return mission, it will be the first rocket to be fired on another planetary surface.

Before it fires up from the surface, it will have to be transported to the Red Planet to collect the samples. JPL said that the Sample Retrieval Lander, another important part of the campaign, would carry the MAV to Mars’ surface, landing near or in the Jezero Crater to gather the samples cached by Perseverance.

The samples will be returned to the lander, which will serve as the launch platform for the MAV. With the sample container secured, the MAV will then launch.

MAV will land close to the Perseverance rover for collecting samples gathered by it. (Photo: Nasa)

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER MAV LIFTS OFF FROM MARS?

Once MAV blasts off from the surface of Mars and reaches orbit, the container will be captured by the European Space Agency’s Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft outfitted with Nasa’s Capture, Containment, and Return System payload.

The spacecraft will then begin a return journey to Earth and arrive on the planet in the early-to-mid 2030s. “America’s investment in our Mars Sample Return program will fulfill a top priority planetary science goal and demonstrate our commitment to global partnerships, ensuring NASA remains a leader in exploration and discovery,” Nelson added.

CHALLENGES FOR MAV

Developing a mission that will first land on Mars, collect samples from a rover, launch into the atmosphere, and then rendezvous with another spacecraft in orbit to begin the journey back is not easy. It will have to perform with precision at every step.

Location of various mission that have landed on Mars. (Photo: JPL)

The mission is complicated and engineers will have to develop several new technologies from scratch. The vehicles must be robust enough to withstand the harsh Mars environment and adaptable enough to work with multiple spacecraft.

JPL said that the vehicle must also be small enough to fit inside the Sample Retrieval Lander. The Sample Retrieval Lander is planned for launch no earlier than 2026.

A successful mission will be revolutionary for interplanetary exploration that has not been attempted in the past.

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