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Watch NASA test a small capsule for the Mars Sample Return mission

NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently trundling across the surface of Mars, gathering specially selected samples of rock for return to Earth in the coming years by the ambitious Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.

Bringing the samples to Earth will allow scientists to analyze the materials using advanced laboratory equipment as they seek to discover if microbial life once existed on the faraway planet.

NASA is working with the European Space Agency (ESA) in a bid to launch the MSR mission toward the end of this decade.

Part of the preparation work includes testing the suitability of different capsule designs, one of which will bring the samples back to Earth in the final stage of the long journey from Mars. The capsule will have to withstand extreme forces as it enters Earth’s atmosphere, and with no parachute to slow its descent it’ll also have to be tough to smash into the ground while keeping the samples intact.

“The purpose of these tests … is to understand how much load the Mars samples will see when they impact the ground at that high velocity,” said NASA engineer James Corliss.

In the video below, engineers are shown dropping one of the capsule designs from a tall structure at the Landing and Impact Research Facility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

In another test, the team dropped a capsule from an even higher altitude, launching it out of a helicopter over the Utah Test and Training Range, which is where mission planners are hoping to land the MSR capsule at the end of the mission.

Ready, hover, drop! A test article of a potential design for the Mars Sample Return Earth entry vehicle successfully completed a series of drop tests from a helicopter flying above a test range in Utah. More info: https://t.co/1acoZAM3fn pic.twitter.com/yCggbdu0hP

— NASA Langley Research Center (@NASA_Langley) November 9, 2021

There’s still a huge amount of work to be done before the MSR mission gets underway. When it finally launches, it’ll be a nail-biting time for NASA and ESA personnel as they wait to see if each stage of the retrieval effort goes according to plan.

The mission from start to finish will probably look something like this: First, a rocket launched from Earth will deploy a spacecraft to Mars. As it approaches the red planet, the spacecraft will launch a lander to the martian surface.

Once the lander is safely on the ground, it’ll send a rover to pick up the sealed samples of Mars rock left by Perseverance.

Next, a small rocket will launch the gathered samples into Mars orbit, where they will be transferred to a waiting orbiter. The orbiter will then transport the samples to Earth, a journey that in the final stage will see the orbiter launch the capsule toward Utah.

Then it’s a case of retrieving the capsule, extracting the samples, and sending them to the lab, giving scientists their first close look at a decent range of Mars material.

“Bringing Mars samples back to Earth will allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars, and will allow future generations to study them using technology not yet available,” NASA said earlier this year. “Curating the samples on Earth will allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the moon have done for decades.”

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