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How NASA will bring a little bit of Mars back to Earth

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When NASA’s Mars 2020 rover blasts off this summer, it will mark the first step of an ambitious plan to bring pieces of the red planet back to Earth.

The new rover will collect samples of Martian rock and soil that will later be retrieved and launched into space so they can begin their interplanetary journey.

Martian soil
Martian soil
(ESA)

These samples will be a game-changer in understanding our next-door neighbor, scientists say. NASA rovers have already found that Mars once had water and the right chemical ingredients to be friendly to life. But figuring out whether life ever actually existed there is a much trickier question — one that can only be answered by subjecting pieces of the red planet to cutting-edge instruments on Earth.

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If successful, the joint effort between NASA and the European Space Agency will be humanity’s first round-trip visit to another planet. Here’s how it will work:

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Getting the goods
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover drills a rock sample
NASA’s Mars 2020 rover
(NASA)

After landing in Jezero Crater in 2021, the Mars 2020 rover will gather samples of Martian soil and rock.

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Sealed and safe
Mars 2020 drives away from a sample in a sealed tube
(NASA)

The rover will store those samples in sealed metal tubes and leave them on the ground.

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Hello, lander
A lander touches down on Mars
Mars Sample Return lander
(NASA)

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In 2028, a NASA lander will touch down nearby. It will carry a small rover built by the European Space Agency to fetch the cylinders, as well as a NASA rocket to send them into orbit.

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Ready to work
Mars sample return lander with solar panels deployed
(NASA)

The lander will deploy its solar panels and begin operations on the surface.

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Fetch, rover!
A rover fetches samples
ESA’s Sample Fetch Rover
(NASA)

ESA’s Sample Fetch Rover, comparable in size to NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers, will collect the sample tubes and bring them to the lander.

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Sample hand-off
The fetch rover delivers a sample to the lander
(NASA)

The lander’s robotic arm will then take the tubes from the fetch rover and load them into a basketball-sized vessel in the nose of the rocket. There’s also an option for Mars 2020 to make sample deliveries.

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A Martian treasure trove
Mars sample container
ESA’s sample container
(ESA)

The ESA-built vessel will keep its precious contents at a temperature below 86 degrees Fahrenheit to preserve them close to their natural state.

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Goodbye, Mars
Mars Ascent Vehicle sends rock and soil samples into orbit
The lander with the Mars Ascent Vehicle
(NASA)

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Once loaded, the rocket will blast off, becoming the first to launch off another planet.

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Entering orbit
A rocket carries a container of sample tubes into Martian orbit
(NASA)

After the rocket reaches space, it will release the spherical sample container into orbit.

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Hitching a ride
ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter
ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter
(ESA/ATG Medialab)

An ESA spacecraft, launched around the same time as the NASA lander, will collect the orbiting sample container while they both circle the red planet.

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Bound for Earth
The Earth Return Orbiter collects the sample return pod
(ESA)

That spacecraft, ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter, will then ferry the samples back to scientists.

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Final plunge
The Earth Return Orbiter heads back to its home planet
(ESA/ATG Medialab)

Once it arrives around 2031, the spacecraft will release a NASA entry capsule containing the sample container for the final plunge toward Earth.


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Amina Khan is a science writer at the Los Angeles Times.