Why Pieces Of Mars May Soon Be On Earth

When NASA's Perseverance landed on Mars it was a great triumph. Now it's coming back to Earth with pieces from the red planet.

By Jennifer Hollohan | Published

mars earth recycling

Everyone watched eagerly when NASA’s Perseverance Rover made it to Mars in 2021. After all, our popular culture is filled with hints that there is life on planets other than Earth. Could the movies and books be right for all these decades? News headlines captured the nation’s attention when the innovative rover accomplished a successful landing. But there were no indications of alien beings. What we saw was “just” a stunningly beautiful red planet. Now some pieces of that beautiful red planet are being brought back to Earth for further study.

For roughly a year, Perseverance set about its work. It began collecting a tremendous amount of samples from the dusty planet. It was able to transmit a fair amount of data back to NASA via a series of satellite links. However, with the rover on Mars and the scientists back on Earth, they can’t fully assess everything the rover picks up.

That is why NASA is partnering with the European Space Agency to undertake an extraordinary and completed “rescue” mission – all designed to bring the samples back to Earth. There are a few reasons this return trip will take much effort from multiple agencies. First, Mars is 400 million miles away. It’s no easy trip. Second, scientists designed Perseverance to stay put. NASA never intended it to come home.

So what does it take to retrieve the samples from Mars and bring them back to Earth? Well, it will take approximately a decade and involve multiple robots, another lander, and an orbiter designed to make the long trek back. The two agencies hope to have this mission completed by 2033. 

The complicated process can get broken down into a few key steps. Initially, NASA will send a second lander to Mars. It will have numerous robots on board, as well as two helicopters that resemble Ingenuity. The helicopters and robots will get remotely controlled by a group of scientists back on Earth.

Perseverance will then drive its goldmine of samples to the new arrivals. The helicopters will remain on standby to help the rover if it encounters any trouble on its journey. Robots that made the journey from Earth to Mars in the hull of the lander will set to work. They will transfer all the samples to a 3-meter-tall ship known as the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

Once our scientists have received news of the successful transfer, they will initiate the launch of the Mars Ascent Vehicle. Once it makes orbit, it will drop a container of samples. The waiting Earth Return Orbiter, belonging to the European Space Agency, will retrieve the container. The Earth Return Orbiter will finally make the long journey home.

We do not yet have a complete picture of the nature of the samples Perseverance collected from the surface of Mars. However, many news outlets have received enough information to present an intriguing hypothesis. Even if we don’t find evidence of aliens, there are indications that Earth is not the only planet to sustain life. Scientists hope the samples will offer a glimpse into ancient life in our solar system. Perhaps authors and screenwriters were not so far off after all.