NASA will launch the first rocket from another planet before 2030

Since there is no other option to retrieve the Perseverance samples at this time, NASA is preparing for the world’s first extraplanetary launch.

In a few years, the various space agencies have made great progress in their exploration of Mars, and in particular NASA, which today has two rovers on the Red Planet. The last of them, Perseverance, continues to do wonders and collect rock dust in the hope of finding biosignatures there. But this is only the first step; the real challenge will be to repatriate these samples. And to achieve this, NASA simply intends to carry out the first extraplanetary launch!

In its press release, NASA details an undertaking that is anything but trivial, as one might expect. While that’s already quite a feat, even the deployment of Perseverance and its flying sidekick Ingenuity seems almost trivial compared to the enterprise that awaits the engineers. Indeed, if we are beginning to master the launch of rockets from Earth relatively well, everything remains to be invented to do so on Mars.

Engineers will not be able to rely on the data of hundreds of other launches already carried out on our planet, because the conditions are simply incomparable. This obviously starts with the infrastructure. If the operators become so good at launching rockets, it is above all because they have the equipment to do so with precision: a retractable launch tower, a network of tunnels to redirect the thrust of the rocket engine on takeoff… so many elements to which they will not have access on site. They will also have to take into account the very low concentration of oxygen, the temperature, the dust that is omnipresent on Mars, and so on.

A rover as a launch pad

Suffice to say that repatriating the findings of Perseverance will not be easy. To achieve this, NASA has teamed up with the American giant Lockheed Martin to produce the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a miniature rocket intended to carry the samples into orbit. Initially, the device will be deployed using a new rover called Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL); a unique device of its kind, which tries to respond to the lack of infrastructure since it would itself serve as a launch platform!

Once launched, the MAV will have to reach orbit in order to deposit the samples recovered by the rover, neither more nor less. He will then have completed his mission, which is certainly brief, but as delicate as it is crucial. At this stage, the European Space Agency (ESA) will take over with its Earth Return Orbiter. It is a machine specially designed to serve as a support for NASA’s Capture, Containment and Return System; it is this tool that will have the heavy responsibility of recovering the samples, conditioning them and protecting them until they return to Earth.

Back on Earth before 2030?

The Mars Ascent Vehicle represents a first concrete step in this ambitious project which consists not only of landing on Mars, but above all of leaving it.”, explains Thomas Zurbuchen, a senior NASA official. “We’re almost at the end of the concept phase for this Mars Sample Return mission, and the pieces are falling into place to bring back the first samples. Once on Earth, they can be studied by state-of-the-art instruments that are too complex to be mounted on a rover.”, he enthuses.

NASA hopes Lockheed can finish the MAV by 2026; indeed, it is on this date that NASA expects to complete its mission companion, the Sample Retrieval Lander. Otherwise, the firm will have two more years to achieve this since its contract runs until 2028. If all goes well, NASA researchers will therefore be able to study Martian soil in person before the end of the decade, with all that entails in terms of fascinating discoveries.

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