Life on Mars: British scientists launch daring space mission to bring back samples of Martian soil 

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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 down 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 currently designing a second rover which will launch in 2026 to collect Nasa’s samples, load them onto a rocket and fire them up into orbit to be collected by a spacecraft and brought home.

The rover will collect and bring the samples to The Mars Ascent Vehicle which will blast off and release them in space 

The rover will collect and bring the samples to The Mars Ascent Vehicle which will blast off and release them in space 

Credit:
Nasa

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 which can withstand crash-landing at 2,000 g-force and speeds of up to 24,000 mph in the Utah desert.

Alastair Wayman, Advanced Projects Engineer at Airbus, said: “If you design the re-entry system to rely on a 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 default is to be very careful with them.”

Nasa's Mars2020 rover is the first to be equipped with a drill to take samples of the surface 

Nasa’s Mars2020 rover is the first to be equipped with a drill to take samples of the surface 

Credit:
Nasa 

The 4.45 million euro (£3.9 million) project has been commissioned by the European Space Agency (ESA) which is working alongside Nasa on the sample return mission.

The Mars2020 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 itself.   

Nasa’s rover will drive to dozens of different locations collecting samples and leaving them in pen-sized tubes in pre-arranged depots on the planet’s surface.

The Mars2020 rover will be lowered onto the surface 

The Mars2020 rover will be lowered onto the surface 

Credit:
Nasa 

The Mars Sample Return lander is due to leave in 2026 carrying the retrieval rover, which once on the surface, will travel around 10 miles 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 Mr 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 up its huge jaws to capture the metal ball.

Simulated Mars dust 

Simulated Mars dust 

Credit:
Eddie Mulholland for The Telegraph 

Mr Wayman said: “That part not only has to grab it but it has to make sure that there is no contamination from the surface of the Mars 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 reentry 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 it wipes out most of the useful information. One of the other puzzles facing scientists is how to keep the samples at no more than 86F (30C).

Alastair Wayman at the Mars Yard in Stevenage

Alastair Wayman at the Mars Yard in Stevenage

Credit:
Eddie Mulholland for The Telegraph

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.”

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