Samples From Mars Could Hitch A Ride To Earth In This Box

by Elizabeth Howell on October 29, 2013

A European Space Agency-designed container that could be used one day to bring Martian samples back to Earth. Credit: ESA-Anneke Le Floc'h

A European Space Agency-designed container that could be used one day to bring Martian samples back to Earth. Credit: ESA-Anneke Le Floc’h

Could this be as surprising as Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates? What you’re looking at here is a container that could one day contain samples of Mars. Yup, even though a “sample return” mission is still years away, the European Space Agency is already designing a container so that when the time comes, they’ll be ready for the trip.

This 11-pound (five kilogram) container absolutely needs to keep whatever is inside protected and at a constant temperature of 14 Fahrenheit (-10 Celsius) as it journeys from the Martian surface to Earth, which takes several months at the least. And the journey won’t be an easy one, ESA says:

“First, the sample container must be landed on Mars, along with a rover to retrieve a cache of samples carefully selected by a previous mission, according to current mission scenarios,” the agency stated.

A Mars sample return mission is still quite a ways away. Credit: European Space Agency

A Mars sample return mission is still quite a ways away. Credit: European Space Agency

“Then, once filled, it will be launched back up to Mars orbit. There it will remain for several days until a rendezvous spacecraft captures it … Before being returned to Earth, the container will be enclosed in another larger bio-sealed vessel to ensure perfect containment of any returned martian material. This container will then be returned to Earth for a high-speed entry.”

Why not use a parachute? Well, if the samples contain life it would be awkward if the parachute malfunctioned and the capsule scattered stuff all over Earth. That’s why it’s designed for a crash landing; it can in fact withstand forces of at least 400 times the force of gravity, tests of the capsule have revealed.

The prime contractor for this project was French company Mecano I&D. ESA emphasizes this is just a proof of concept so far, and that further refinements are expected. Plus, this little machine needs a ride to and from Mars. When do you think that will happen, and how?

Source: European Space Agency

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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