An artist's impression of ESA’s Sample Fetch Rover collecting a Mars sample capsule that is part of the Mars Sample Return series of missions.
The Mars Sample Return campaign will need three launches from Earth to accomplish landing, collecting, storing and finding samples and delivering them to Earth. A NASA launch will send the Sample Return Lander mission to land a platform near the Mars 2020 site. From here, a small ESA rover – the Sample Fetch Rover – will head out to retrieve the cached samples.
Once it has collected them in what can be likened to an interplanetary treasure hunt, it will return to the lander platform and load them into a single large canister on the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). This vehicle will perform the first liftoff from Mars and carry the container into Mars orbit.
ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter is the last mission of the Mars Sample Return campaign, timed to capture the basketball-size sample container orbiting Mars. The samples will be sealed in a biocontainment system to prevent contaminating Earth with unsterilised material before being moved into an Earth entry capsule.
The spacecraft will then return to Earth, where it will release the entry capsule for the samples to end up in a specialised handling facility.
Studying Mars samples on Earth will allow scientists to share resources and send samples to the best laboratories around the world for analysis – laboratories so complicated and heavy they would be impossible to take to Mars.
Here, they can be analysed by the most sophisticated equipment and techniques, in turn allowing scientists to verify results independently. In addition, as our equipment improves and new advances are made, samples can be reanalysed and new information extracted.