NASA has picked house and protection contractor Lockheed Martin to construct a small rocket able to lifting off from the floor of Mars carrying samples of the Pink Planet’s rocks and different supplies. The choice is a giant step in an extended journey to ultimately carry pristine items of Mars again to Earth in order that scientists can examine them in larger element. If profitable, Lockheed Martin’s rocket might turn out to be the primary to launch from one other planet.
The rocket that Lockheed Martin is charged with constructing is called the “Mars Ascent Automobile,” or the MAV. It’s a key a part of NASA’s plan to retrieve samples of Martian filth which might be at the moment being gathered by the house company’s Mars rover, Perseverance. Final 12 months, NASA efficiently landed Perseverance on Mars with the specific purpose of gathering samples of the Martian surroundings whereas searching for indicators of life. Perseverance has gathered a handful of samples to this point and can ultimately go away them on the floor of Mars to be picked up later.
For many years, scientists have been dreaming about returning samples from Mars to be taught extra about what’s occurring within the Martian filth, together with if the planet ever hosted alien life. Learning the Martian surroundings with robots from afar can solely inform us a lot — we have to examine samples of Mars right here on Earth with subtle laboratory devices. However Mars pattern return is an extremely advanced type of mission. It entails touchdown a rocket on the Pink Planet that may take off once more — one thing that’s by no means been achieved earlier than.
NASA says it’s giving Lockheed Martin a cost-plus contract to make the MAV, doubtlessly price as much as $194 million. The contract will span six years, starting no later than February twenty fifth, NASA says. Below its settlement with NASA, Lockheed Martin will develop a number of check items of the MAV in addition to the ultimate flight unit. Creating the MAV goes to be a giant engineering problem because it needs to be sufficiently small to suit on a lander however hardy sufficient to resist the cruel Mars surroundings.
The MAV is just one piece of the a lot bigger Mars pattern return puzzle — loads of different spacecraft will have to be constructed, too. NASA envisions constructing a lander known as the Pattern Retrieval Lander, which might carry the MAV to the floor of the Pink Planet. NASA and the European House Company, ESA, are additionally planning to construct a separate rover that may go decide up the samples that Perseverance left behind and produce them to the Pattern Retrieval Lander. These samples would then be transferred to the rocket earlier than it blasts off with its valuable cargo in tow. As soon as in house, the MAV would rendezvous with one other spacecraft, being constructed by ESA, which might then carry the samples to Earth.
It’s a whole lot of shifting components which might be going to take the higher a part of a decade to come back collectively. Proper now, NASA estimates that the Pattern Retrieval Lander will land by 2026 on the earliest, and the samples received’t arrive at Earth till the early 2030s. But when NASA and ESA — and now Lockheed Martin — can pull this off, pristine Mars samples will likely be returned to Earth. That will put us one step nearer to answering the final word query: does life exist on different worlds?