National Aeronautics and Space Administration Logo
Follow this link to skip to the main content NASA Banner
Solar System Exploration
Mars Sample Return
 By Target   By Name   By Decade 
Mars Sample Return
Mars Sample Return Mission to Mars

Mission Type: Lander, Orbiter, Sample Return, Rover
NASA Center: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
NASA Mars Exploration Program,

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.

Key Dates
This is a mission concept. No launch date has been determined yet.
Fast Facts
Mars Sample Return Facts 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.

The Soviet Union's Luna program pioneered the field of robotic sample return. The Luna 16 mission to Earth's Moon was the first successful robotic sample return.

No spacecraft has returned samples from the surface of another planet, though meteorites from Mars have been found on Earth (above).

Scientists on Earth can make a more thorough analysis of samples than can be made on a distant planet.
Awards and Recognition   Solar System Exploration Roadmap   Contact Us   Site Map   Print This Page
NASA Official: Kristen Erickson
Advisory: Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science
Outreach Manager: Alice Wessen
Curator/Editor: Phil Davis
Science Writers: Courtney O'Connor and Bill Dunford
Producer: Greg Baerg
Webmaster: David Martin
> NASA Science Mission Directorate
> Budgets, Strategic Plans and Accountability Reports
> Equal Employment Opportunity Data
   Posted Pursuant to the No Fear Act
> Information-Dissemination Policies and Inventories
> Freedom of Information Act
> Privacy Policy & Important Notices
> Inspector General Hotline
> Office of the Inspector General
> NASA Communications Policy
> NASA Advisory Council
> Open Government at NASA
Last Updated: 30 Nov 2010