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NASA’s Perseverance Rover has spent over a year on Mars, exploring the planet and collecting nine samples from rocks and soil, so far, to someday bring back to Earth. This week, the rover started scouting spots for the planned Mars Sample Return (MSR) Campaign to land.
For NASA’s return campaign, Perseverance is looking for a relatively flat, lander-friendly site close to the Jezero Crater’s ancient river delta, where the rover is currently collecting samples. Rocks and undulating surfaces could make it too difficult for a lander to touch down, so the team is looking for a pancake-like zone with a 200-foot radius.
The team has been scouting out an area on Mars, called the “landing strip” by the MSR team, from spacecrafts in orbit. But this is the first time the team is getting an up close look at it with Perseverance.
“We had been eyeing these locations since before Perseverance’s landing, but imagery from orbit can only tell you so much,” Al Chen, MSR systems engineering and integration manager at JPL, said. “Now we have some up-close-and-personal shots of the landing strip that indicate we were right on the money. The landing strip will more than likely make our shortlist of potential landing and caching sites for MSR.”
The MSR Campaign aims to retrieve and deliver samples from Mars to Earth for intensive study in laboratories. The team is especially looking for signs of past microscopic life on the planet.
The first stage of the campaign, collecting samples of rock and sediment from the planet, has been underway since Perseverance landed in February 2021. The rover collected its ninth sample from the river delta on July 8. Perseverance cored its first rock in September 2021 and collected two samples from it. The rover is a 2022 RBR50 Robotics Innovation Award winner for the achievement.
The rover is equipped with a total of 43 sample tubes that it hopes to bring back to Earth. NASA is collaborating with its partners at the European Space Agency (ESA) to send another lander to Mars that will be equipped with another rover which will travel to Perseverance to collect its samples.
Also on board the lander will be a rocket that will take the samples to an ESA spacecraft orbiting mars. In the orbiter, the capsule will be prepped for its final trip to Earth. The orbiter will need to seal the sample, sterilize the seal and place the sample into an Earth entry capsule. From there, it’ll be sent to Earth.