In this illustration of a Mars sample return mission concept, a lander carrying a fetch rover touches down on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The six-wheeled roving explorer has inspected a stretch of the Red Planet to see if it is flat enough for
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover used one of its navigation cameras to take this panorama of a proposed landing site for the Mars Sample Return lander that would serve as part of the campaign to bring samples of Mars rock and sediment to Earth for intensive study. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Because rocks and an undulating surface are harder to land on, engineers planning a Mars landing prefer to work with flatter ground. With that in mind, the MSR Entry, Descent, and Landing team is looking for a pancake-flat landing zone with a 200-foot (60-meter) radius.
“The Perseverance team pulled out all the stops for us, because Mars Sample Return has unique needs when it comes to where we operate,” said MSR Program Manager Richard Cook of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “Essentially, a dull landing place is good. The flatter and more uninspiring the vista, the better we like it, because while there are a lot of things that need to be done when we arrive to pick up the samples, sightseeing is not one of them.”
Same image as above, but with annotations. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The first stage of MSR is already in progress: Perseverance has cored, collected, and sealed nine samples of Mars rock to date. The ninth, collected on July 6, is the first from Jezero Crater’s ancient river delta. The plan is for Perseverance to drop, or cache, sample tubes on the surface to await later retrieval during MSR surface operations.
This illustration shows a concept for a proposed NASA Mars lander-and-rocket combination that would play a key role in returning to Earth samples of Mars material collected by the Perseverance rover. This Sample Retrieval Lander would carry a small rocket (about 10 feet, or 3 meters, tall) called the Mars Ascent Vehicle to the Martian surface. After using a robotic arm to load the rover’s sealed sample tubes into a container in the nose cone of the rocket, the lander would launch the Mars Ascent Vehicle into orbit around the Red Planet. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Choosing an area that lacks large rocks (especially those over 7 1/2 inches, or 19 centimeters, in diameter), sand dunes, and steeply angled terrain would go a long way toward easing the path for an MSR recovery vehicle to efficiently grab tubes before heading to the MSR Sample Retrieval Lander (see image above) and its Mars Ascent Vehicle (see image below).
This illustration shows NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) in powered flight. The MAV will carry tubes containing Martian rock and soil samples into orbit around Mars, where ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft will enclose them in a highly secure containment capsule and deliver them to Earth. Credit: NASA
The MSR team calls the area they’ve been looking at the “landing strip” because – at least from images taken from spacecraft in orbit – it appears to be as flat and long as a runway. But they needed a rover’s-eye-view for a closer look.
“We had been eyeing these locations since before Perseverance’s landing, but imagery from orbit can only tell you so much,” said Al Chen, Mars Sample Return Systems Engineering & Integration manager at
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover used one of its navigation cameras to take this image of flat terrain to be considered for a Mars Sample Return lander that would serve as part of the campaign to bring samples of Mars rock and sediment to Earth for intensive study. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA’s Mars Sample Return Campaign promises to revolutionize humanity’s understanding of Mars by bringing scientifically selected samples to Earth for study using the most sophisticated instruments around the world. The campaign would fulfill a solar system exploration goal, a high priority since the 1970s and in the last three National Academy of Sciences Planetary Decadal Surveys.
This strategic NASA and ESA partnership would be the first mission to return samples from another planet and the first launch from the surface of another planet. The samples collected by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover during its exploration of an ancient lakebed are thought to present the best opportunity to reveal clues about the early evolution of Mars, including the potential for past life. By better understanding the history of Mars, we would improve our understanding of all rocky planets in the solar system, including Earth.