Mars Sample Return Scientists Lindsay Hays and Meenakshi Wadhwa discuss the mission to return samples from the surface of Mars to Earth.
NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission will revolutionize our understanding of Mars by returning samples for study using the most sophisticated instruments around the world. A partnership of NASA and the European Space Agency, Mars Sample Return would be the first mission to return samples from another planet and the first to launch from the surface of another planet.
In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:
- Recent updates to the mission architecture
- Unique technical challenges of the mission
- Mars Sample Return partnerships and collaboration
Lindsay Hays is a Program Scientist in the Planetary Science Division (PSD) at NASA Headquarters and Deputy Lead Scientist for Mars Sample Return. Hays is the Deputy Program Scientist for the Astrobiology Program and the Program Lead for Organizational Excellence. She is also the Lead Program Officer for the Exobiology and Habitable Worlds Research Program, and the PSD representative for the Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) Program for graduate research. Hays previously worked in the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the Sample Return Science System Engineer and also worked on science activities for Humans to Mars. She first worked at NASA as an undergraduate summer intern at JPL. Hays earned her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from the Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduate school, Hays was a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, where she received the Agouron Geobiology Postdoctoral Fellowship, and a NASA Postdoctoral Management Program Fellow at NASA HQ.
Meenakshi ‘Mini’ Wadhwa is the Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University (ASU) and Principal Scientist of the Mars Sample Return Program. Wadhwa is a planetary scientist and educator interested in the time scales and processes involved in the formation and evolution of the Solar System and planets. She has hunted for meteorites in Antarctica with the U.S. Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program. Wadhwa served as Curator in the Department of Geology at the Field Museum in Chicago before moving to ASU as a Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in 2006. At ASU, she served as Director of the Center for Meteorite Studies before being appointed in 2019 as Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Wadhwa has served on numerous advisory committees for NASA and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and currently chairs the Science Committee of the NASA Advisory Council. She has a bachelor’s and master’s in geology from Panjab University and a doctorate in Earth and planetary sciences from Washington University.
Lindsay Hays: It just feels audacious. We have this plan that we’re going to do this amazing thing. To me, this feels like exactly the kind of stuff that NASA does, right? We’re going to go and we’re going to collect these samples and we’re going to take all of these steps and we’re going to bring them back to Earth so that we can analyze them.
Meenaksha Wadhwa: I would dream about the possibility of bringing samples back from Mars and what a fantastic thing that would be. And it was always in the future, 10, 20 years in the future. And so having the possibility now, I can’t tell you how excited I am just because it’s really starting to feel real. Perseverance is collecting the samples as we speak.
Deana Nunley (Host): Welcome to Small Steps, Giant Leaps, a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast where we tap into project experiences to share best practices, lessons learned and novel ideas.
I’m Deana Nunley.
NASA and the European Space Agency are working together to bring the first samples of Mars material back to Earth for detailed study in the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art labs by current and future generations.
We’re excited to welcome two scientists for the Mars Sample Return Mission to the podcast.
Would you please introduce yourselves?
Wadhwa: Hi, my name is Meenakshi Wadhwa, I usually go by Mini and I’m Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. And I’m also Principal Scientist of the Mars Sample Return Program.
Hays: Hi, my name is Lindsay Hays, and I am at NASA Headquarters, where I’m a Program Scientist in the Planetary Sciences Division. And for Mars Sample Return, I am the Deputy Lead Scientist for Mars Sample Return.
Host: Thank you both for joining us. Lindsay, let’s start with an overview of the Mars Sample Return mission.
Hays: Sure. So, for the Mars Sample Return mission, it really starts with the Mars 2020 Rover, Perseverance. Perseverance is right now on the surface of Mars, collecting samples, rocks, regolith, atmosphere, those sorts of things for return. So, they’re collecting these samples, putting it in sample tubes and storing it on the rover itself. The next step, which will be happening soon, will be putting down some of these samples, what we’re calling a cache, on the surface of Mars. After putting down the cache it’ll continue to collect samples as it continues to explore further up the Jezero Delta and beyond. And it will continue to collect samples up until the time that the next lander arrives at Mars.
This next lander, the Sample Retrieval Lander, will come down to the surface, once it is there, we have two sample retrieval helicopters that will go and will work with Mars 2020, the sample retrieval helicopters will pick up samples, will bring them back to the lander, where they will be loaded in what we call a canister, that we call the Orbiting Sample Container.
This Orbiting Sample Container, once it’s full of as many samples as we have to put in there, will be loaded into what we call the Mars Ascent Vehicle. The Mars Ascent Vehicle then launches off the surface of Mars. Once in orbit around Mars, it will release that Orbiting Sample Container and the Orbiting Sample Container will then be picked up by the Earth Return Orbiter, or the ERO. It will catch in space that Orbiting Sample Container. It’ll encapsulate it in a couple layers, think nesting doll situation, and bring that sample container back to Earth. Once it gets close to Earth, it will release the Earth Entry Vehicle, which is this big dome-shaped thing that will come down, will land in the Utah Test and Training Range, UTTR, and ultimately the samples there will be brought to a sample receiving facility for curation and some initial safety science analyses.
Host: Wow, Lindsay, so many components to this mission.
Host: Mini, it sounds complicated.
Wadhwa: Well, that’s because it is complicated. Yeah, no, it’s definitely one of the more ambitious robotic programs that NASA has ever undertaken. But that’s where NASA shines, right? There’s all of this challenge, but all of the pieces, we know how to do them. And so, it is complicated.
But one of the things that I did want to mention is that we are going to be hopefully bringing the samples back by about 2033, that’s the current timeline. And basically, the Perseverance Rover, and Lindsay mentioned that Perseverance is collecting samples right now. The plan is for that to be the prime pathway for delivering the samples to the Sample Retrieval Lander that’s going to launch the Mars Ascent Vehicle that’ll bring the samples back eventually. And the helicopters hopefully will only come into play really if there’s a problem with Perseverance, which we hope there won’t be.
Hays: That’s a great point. Yeah, I get so excited about the helicopters because it’s a really exciting backup there, but you’re right.
Host: Yeah, it’s been so much fun watching Ingenuity and hearing all about that. So, this mission is going to just follow on and continue to keep everybody’s attention for sure. Could you share the latest updates in terms of the mission architecture and the timeline?
Wadhwa: So, the Mars Sample Return program, the latest architecture for that, there had been some discussions earlier about whether there might be a rover that might retrieve — a separate rover than Perseverance that might retrieve — the samples from the surface of Mars to bring them back to the Sample Retrieval Lander. But at the current time, the architecture only involves two launches. One for the Earth’s Return Orbiter, that’s going to be launched in 2027. And the second launch is the Sample Retrieval Lander, which will launch in 2028, and that’s the one that’s going to carry with it Mars Ascent Vehicle. And it’s also going to carry the two helicopters that Lindsay mentioned.
And so, the helicopters are the latest addition to the architecture for the Mars Sample Return Program. As I said before, there was originally the plan to have a sample fetch rover provided by ESA, but that architecture has now been simplified and we’re basically going to have the helicopters be the backup pathway for delivering samples to the Sample Retrieval Lander. So, the plan is for the Retrieval Lander to land on Mars sometime in the 2030 timeframe and basically the samples will be delivered hopefully primarily by Perseverance and then the return will happen in 2033.
Host: What are some of the unique technical challenges of this mission?
Hays: Well, I think Mini made a great point earlier when she said that each of the steps along the way, we’re planning for each of the steps and there’s a lot of complicating things to put together, but we feel fairly confident in our ability to do each of the steps. But there are a lot.
I think that one of the unique technical challenges is this handoff between two spacecraft, this actual transfer. We have multiple instances where two separate spacecraft are having to work together. We have the Sample Transfer Arm taking the samples and putting them, loading them into the OS, that sort of thing. We have the OS being captured by ERO. Those kinds of spacecraft require two different systems to work together and to work together really, really well.
And then the other thing I think that’s a really pretty unique technical challenge is the Sample Receiving Facility. Once we get the samples back on Earth, the Sample Receiving Facility has to combine multiple aspects that we’ve seen before. Things like sample curation, but also BSL equivalent and thinking about how to keep the samples really clean from outside contamination and also contain, so we can do really the good science to understand what’s there and make sure that the samples are safe and interesting.
Wadhwa: One of the things that I would add also to the real challenges for this particular program, for the Mars Sample Return Program is that there are some things, as Lindsay mentioned, there’s some things that we have not actually done before that we’re going to be doing this time. And I think we know technologically how to do them, but this is going to be the first time that we’re going to actually do some of these things. And one of them actually is the launching of the Mars Ascent Vehicle from the surface of Mars. We’ve never actually launched from the surface of another planet before. And so this is certainly going to be a first-time activity for us and present some challenges, but I think we have the technological expertise to do that.
Host: Lindsay, how are partnerships and collaboration shaping up for this mission?
Hays: One of the more exciting aspects of MSR to me is just how many different groups are going to be involved in this. This is really going to be an international endeavor. We are partnering with ESA. ESA’s been our partners for this for a long time. Right now, they’re taking the lead on the Earth Return Orbiter and that sample transfer robotic arm on the lander.
Within NASA, internally we have this mission, this is a mission that is spread out across multiple centers. JPL is managing the overall campaign, taking the lead on the Sampler Retrieval Lander. We have Goddard Space Flight Center working on the capture, containment and return system, which is the thing that captures the OS on ERO. And so, they are partnering with ESA and making sure that those two pieces fit together. Marshall is taking the lead on the Mars Ascent Vehicle. Langley is working on the Earth Entry Vehicle. Ames is working on the thermal protection system for the Earth Entry Vehicle. Johnson Space Center is taking the lead for the sample receiving project. Kennedy Space Center is providing launch support.
We’re partnering with industry for this. We have Lockheed Martin is going to be working on the MAVIS contract, which is going to be helping us with the MAV and everything. And then when you think about science partnerships, this is a really international endeavor. We are working with scientists around the world because the science that we can get out of these samples or that we’re hoping to be able to get out of these samples will be truly unique, truly a first, in terms of our ability to analyze samples that have been collected with in situ information and scientifically selected samples as a way to understand this environment that we’re examining. So on multiple levels, we’re working with folks just all over. There’s a lot of us, there’s a lot of people working on this.
Hays: And to put it another way, this is not a thing that you can go alone. This is a thing where we recognize that there are expertise that we can work with and that can be a part of this team all over. And we’re really excited to be working with those people.
Host: What do you hope to learn?
Wadhwa: So, there’s actually a lot of science that’s already happening at Mars and has happened at Mars with all of the remote assets that we’ve had over the many years, including orbiters and rovers and all of the science investigations that go with that. But over the last couple of decades, the science community has really, really spoken through these processes, the Decadal process for example, and said that one of the highest priority ways in which we can advance our understanding of Mars as a planet and whether life ever originated there, basically that’s the next step towards that is Mars Sample Return. And so there’s a lot to learn that we can only really learn once we bring the samples carefully selected and documented samples with geologic context that’s already being provided, of course by the Rover that’s there collecting the samples, well characterized samples back to Earth and studied in Earth-based laboratories to understand what we can about the geologic history.
We want to understand when did the planet form? When did it accrete? When did the major differentiation events that formed the many geochemical reservoirs on the planet, core, mantle and crust, when did that happen? And specifically about the Jezero region where we are collecting the samples from, trying to understand the history of that particular region, understanding the history of climate over time, understanding the geologic evolution of that place. All of those things are things that we will learn from bringing the samples back. And maybe Lindsay wants to say a little bit more about the astrobiological potential as well.
Hays: Yeah, I think Mini did a fantastic job. There’s so, so much that we could potentially learn from MSR and I think that one of the real values of MSR is the ability to have these fantastic samples but also understand the context. Mars 2020 is this extremely capable rover that’s making all these contextual measurements that we then can bring to bear when we do the analyses of the individual samples we’re looking at, which I think is a really great combination. And part of the reason that this mission is not a simple grab and go, this is a real, understand what samples you’re collecting, what any analyses you do of these individual samples can tell you about the bigger picture. And it’s important to everything that Mini mentioned completely.
In addition to that though, if we’re thinking about this area, specifically Jezero Crater, or if we’re thinking about Mars broadly as an astrobiological context, one of the things that we’ve learned from years of astrobiological examination of our own planet and looking at deep time on our own planet is that, if you don’t understand the context of the measurements you’re making when you’re either looking for habitability or signs of habitability, when you’re looking for signs of ancient life or even when you’re looking for signs of modern life, which is not exactly one of the goals of MSR, but when you’re looking, when you’re making astrobiological investigations, if you don’t understand the context of the measurements you’re making, you don’t really know what you’re looking at.
And so, the ability for Mars 2020 and MSR at large, to collect these samples that then we can place in a broader context is just huge. And so, another role of mine at NASA Headquarters is as the Deputy for the Astrobiology Program. And so to me, what we may be able to learn from these samples about the astrobiological potential, looking for signs of past life or signs of habitability on Mars is really exciting.
Host: Mini, how do you determine which materials to collect from Mars?
Wadhwa: Well, that’s a really great question actually, because there are of course orbital studies that have been done of the Jezero Crater area where we are collecting these samples. And so we do understand on large scale some of the context, but when it gets down to basically selecting exactly which rocks we’re going to collect, there’s a very sophisticated laboratory really, that’s on the Perseverance Rover at the current time. And so we are able to really get a lot of information. Of course, there’s the Mastcam-Z camera system that looks at the rock units and is able to provide some information even from the spectral analyses, broadly of what kinds of compositions you might be looking at. And then there’s also other instruments that can tell us something about the chemistry of the rocks, the mineralogy of the rocks. And so based upon what we’re seeing, we can have some basic information about what kind of rock types they might be.
And those really go into, that kind of information really goes into then deciding which particular rock units to go and sample. Because again, our interest is in really collecting as diverse a suite of samples from the Jezero Crater region to get a representative understanding through the representative suite of these samples and understanding of the geologic history of that particular region, but then more broadly be able to understand planetary scale processes as well. And so there’s a range of expertise on the Mars 2020 team of geologists and people that have looked at many different types of rocks on Earth as well as in other planetary environments more remotely. And so with that context in mind, we’re able to apply that to selecting a diverse suite of samples to target to then basically make the decisions about which ones to collect.
Hays: And I’ll just jump in and add one other thing, of course, is that Mars 2020 has a set of science goals and MSR has a set of science goals and thinking about what samples as we explore, as Mars 2020, as the Perseverance Rover explores Jezero Crater and potentially beyond, it continues to be thinking about those particular goals. And writ large, as Mini pointed out, a diverse set of samples is really the key to answering that. But getting samples that can help address each of those objectives is really key.
Host: And then why is it better to do the sample analysis on Earth instead of remotely?
Hays: To me, the whole point of MSR, and Mini answered the question so well, it is complicated. The whole point of the MSR architecture that we’re going with is really in service of the most science from these samples. From sending this extremely capable Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover, as Mini pointed out, to this area. The selection of which site on Mars we’re going to select, the incredible attention that folks like Mini pay to sample integrity and making sure that each of these samples is preserved or is taken care of as best as possible along the way. All of this is in service of the best science, and that applies to doing the sample analysis on Earth as well. Once the samples come back, we have the ability on Earth to take these samples, these tiny precious samples, and apply the full force, the full capability of all of the Earth laboratories that we have.
We have the ability to really, in environments that we are comfortable with, that we’ve been working with extraterrestrial samples in for decades or longer, some places, we have the ability to apply all of those methods to looking at the samples and then take those samples and send them to these Earthbound laboratories. Bringing them back to Earth instead of doing them in situ on Mars, means you can take all of the scientific capability and apply those to each of those samples, which is how you really get as much information out of them as possible. And Mini, you may have some other insights as well.
Wadhwa: Thanks, Lindsay. Yeah, so as Lindsay said, you have access to the entire arsenal of technological advantages that instruments on the Earth have to offer for the analysis of these materials. Spacecraft are inherently limited in terms of the massive material that you can take with you and the energy cost and all of that. And so on Earth, of course, there’s no limiting factor like that. There are instruments like synchrotrons that are the size of city blocks, that you would never be able to take those on a spacecraft. But they’re really going to be key to really looking at almost the atomic scale, the samples. And so to really understanding the kinds of things that we hope to understand, that’s what you need. And so that’s going to be one big advantage. And then of course, there’s the huge advantage of time that you have once you bring samples back here on Earth, because, you might think of questions that you’ve not even thought about now. In the future, you might have questions that you can address with those samples. These samples are going to be available for generations to come.
Hays: Such an important point.
Wadhwa: And you’ll be able to analyze them with instruments that don’t exist today, way into the future. And we’ve seen that, for example, with the Apollo samples. And we had some samples that we opened just in the last couple of years that had been sealed for and stored for like 50 years that were returned by the Apollo missions. And that’s the kind of thing that sample return enables that really you can’t do just from remote analyses on space by spacecraft.
Hays: I’ll just throw out that I use an example, which is, when you think about the pieces you take with you when you travel. If you to travel a lot, you probably have your tiny version of maybe your hair dryer or something like that, and it’s maybe not as good as the one you have at home, but it does the trick, and it’s fine if you’re traveling with it. But the one you have at home is huge and does a great job and makes your hair look fantastic. You can have those really capable instruments if you don’t have to carry them with you. And there’s weight constraints and power constraints and all of those things. So back on Earth allows you to really do the best science, get as much value out of these samples as possible.
Host: What excites you most about Mars Sample Return?
Wadhwa: Gosh, that’s a great question because I have thought about Mars Sample Return since I was a graduate student, really. Because I started, actually, my research was focused on Mars meteorites, for my doctoral thesis. And I said, this is wonderful to have these meteorites, but really we don’t have the geologic context for these samples. We don’t know where on Mars they came from. There’s also limitations in that the meteorites, of course, have been sitting around on the Earth in many cases for tens to hundreds of thousands of years. And so the interaction with the Earth environment, of course, has altered them. And so I would dream about the possibility of bringing samples back from Mars and what a fantastic thing that would be. And it was always in the future, 10, 20 years in the future. And so having the possibility now, we’re in the planning phases, we’re just about ready to move into Phase B for Mars Sample Return program. And that, I can’t tell you how excited I am just because it’s really starting to feel real.
Perseverance is collecting the samples as we speak. We’re getting ready to place these samples in a first depot on the surface of Mars, and that’s going to be, of course, a backup plan in case Perseverance is unable to deliver samples eventually, which we hope, of course Perseverance will be the one to deliver those samples, but we’re moving towards planning for Mars Sample Return and it’s happening. So it’s just super exciting.
Hays: It’s happening. It’s happening, yes. Exactly.
I want to go back to something that Mini said, which was, to me, the thing that excites me the most about this is just, this audacious, every time I explain the whole process of MSR to somebody, it’s sort of, and then there’s more. And then there’s this, and then this thing is going to happen. And it just feels audacious. We have this plan that we’re going to do this amazing thing. To me, this feels like exactly the kind of stuff that NASA does. This is the kind of, we’re going to go and we’re going to collect these samples and we’re going to take all of these steps and we’re going to bring them back to Earth so that we can analyze them. Just the dream big, JPL’s Dare Mighty Things. The idea that we’re going to go out and we’re going to do something that involves all of these steps, that we’ve never put them all together in this order before and we’re going to do it. It’s happening. We’re making this happen. It’s super exciting to me.
And then back to the other question about partnerships, the fact that we’re working with really an international community in this, I think is also really important. I think the fact that MSR is this whole group of folks across different places and different centers and different backgrounds and different expertise coming together to do this. To me that really speaks to the best that we do as explorers, as looking out and thinking about new things and working together with other people to make it happen, I think is great.
Wadhwa: I really agree with that. I think that, that’s such an important thing, especially in these challenging times, to be reminded of what humanity is really capable of when we set our minds to it. It’s an audacious goal and it requires many, many countries and many people to work together, and that’s just super exciting. I totally agree with Lindsay on that.
Host: And a big thank-you to Lindsay and Mini for joining us on the podcast. You’ll find their bios and links to topics discussed during our conversation at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast along with a show transcript.
We’d love to hear your suggestions for future guests or topics on the podcast. If you have a suggestion, please share your idea with us on Twitter at NASA APPEL – that’s app-el – or contact us via the NASA APPEL Knowledge Services website.
As always, thanks for listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps.