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How NASA plans to return Martian sample to Earth

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Posted at 6:51 PM, Feb 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-17 18:53:10-05

As NASA is set to land the Perseverance rover on Mars on Thursday, part of the rover’s mission is to take a sample of Martian soil and return it to Earth someday.

While samples of the Moon have been returned to Earth, a sample of Mars has never been returned.

The rover will land on Mars around 3:55 p.m. ET Thursday. The landing can be viewed on NASA.gov.

Returning a sample to Earth could help scientists better determine if life once existed on the red planet.

NASA said that Perseverance will collect the most intriguing samples, store them in samples tubes, and, later, deposit them so that future missions can collect the sample tubes and fly them back to Earth for analysis. NASA, along with European partners, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

“The instrumentation required to definitively prove microbial life once existed on Mars is too large and complex to bring to Mars,” said Bobby Braun, the Mars Sample Return program manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “That is why NASA is partnering with the European Space Agency on a multi-mission effort, called Mars Sample Return, to retrieve the samples Perseverance collects and bring them back to Earth for study in laboratories across the globe.”

The rover will land on Jerezo Crater, which was targeted due to a high likelihood of past life. It is believed that Jerezo Crater contained rivers of liquid water in Mars’ ancient past. Perseverance will be tasked with examining rocks that are up to 3.6 billion years old.

“We have strong evidence that Jezero Crater once had the ingredients for life. Even if we conclude after returned sample analysis that the lake was uninhabited, we will have learned something important about the reach of life in the cosmos,” said Ken Williford, deputy project scientist for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Whether or not Mars was ever a living planet, it’s essential to understand how rocky planets like ours form and evolve. Why did our own planet remain hospitable as Mars became a desolate wasteland?"

Perseverance will search for telltale signs that microbial life may have lived on Mars billions of years ago, NASA said.

NASA says human exploration of Mars is still its goal, but in the meantime, the agency plans on using the Moon as a stepping stone to go further into space. NASA said that it plans on returning mankind to the Moon by 2024, establishing a permanent base there on 2028.

Justin Boggs is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @jjboggs or on Facebook.