Mission Type: Lander, Orbiter, Sample Return, Rover
NASA Center: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA Mars Exploration Program, http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/
A joint Mars exploration program between NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) has set a long term focus of the return of samples from Mars to Earth.
The current proposed campaign calls for a set of three missions, potentially starting with the first launch in 2018 to collect a cache of samples. Two other proposed missions would launch in opportunities after that, until the samples are returned to Earth and delivered to a specially designed containment facility for analysis. Once on Earth, these samples would be studied with advanced instruments, always following NASA and international planetary protection guidelines.
The proposed 2018 mission would use a "sky crane" landing system similar to the one that will be used by the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover. Two solar-powered rovers would be placed on the surface of Mars: the proposed NASA caching rover, and the ESA ExoMars rover. The vast collection of science results from orbital and landed missions would help scientists find the locations to collect samples. Canisters of cached samples would be left in a safe location on the surface of Mars for possible later retrieval by a future mission -- the proposed Mars Sample Return lander.
Also using a landing system similar to MSL, the proposed Mars Sample Return lander would carry a "fetch" rover, a rocket referred to as a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and sample handling/packaging equipment. The fetch rover would retrieve the sample canister left in a safe place from the sampling caching rover mission from the past and deliver it to the lander. The sample canister would be packaged potentially with other local samples into a spherical container for return to Earth. The MAV would launch, and release this container in orbit around Mars.
The proposed Mars Sample Return Orbiter mission would be the third mission in this campaign. Using long-range cameras and a capture basket similar to a basketball hoop, the orbiter would track-down and capture the sample container. The sample container would be placed in a high-endurance Earth-entry vehicle (EEV) that looks like a flying saucer. When ready, the orbiter would return to Earth and release the EEV before diverting the orbiter's path away from Earth. Once on the surface, the Earth entry vehicle would be placed in a specially designed sample containment facility. Only after samples pass rigorous testing for potential hazards would they be allowed out of the containment facility and provided to multiple laboratories for decades of analysis and scientific discovery.
A possible scenario would involve launching the Mars Science Return Orbiter in 2022, ahead of a 2024 Mars Science Return lander. The orbiter would relay information from the lander to Earth and help monitor the lander on Mars. With this plan, samples could be returned to Earth as early as 2027.