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

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

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  • Kapitalist October 29, 2013, 6:21 PM

    Maybe the return sample could dock with ISS and be secured by tests there, before it is taken down to Earth for further analysis? The ISS project is much more motivated by medicine than by astronomy anyway, so why not take the advantage of combining the two in an exciting and safe quarantine experiment? If the ISS then is contaminated by some bad bugs, it could be pushed far away for the safety of all of human kind (except the ISS staff, who are willing risk takers anyway).

    • fabuchachi October 30, 2013, 7:23 AM

      Yeah, I think that would be a good idea.

  • zkank October 29, 2013, 11:42 PM

    IMHO, this likely won’t come to fruition.
    NASA’s talked about this, too. So have the Russians.
    Government agencies have a knack for milking projects as long as they can before commitment.

    Private sector is how it will get done.
    Apollo 17 in 1972 was the last successful extraplanetary samples-return mission, I believe.
    That’s forty-one years ago!
    (Or do we give technical credit to Japan’s Hayabusa mission in 2010 returning dust samples after touch down on Itokawa?)

    Just yesterday was an inspiring article here at UT, and again in my opinion, the private sector will be the first to return to the moon before any government!
    http://www.universetoday.com/105840/moonstruck-private-moon-robot-competition-coming-to-a-theater-near-you/

    I think that the “no parachute” concept leaves too much to go wrong.
    While the 2004 Genesis cometary sample mission’s parachutes failed and the interior samples were severely compromised, Stardust did it right two years later.

  • Aqua4U October 30, 2013, 12:29 AM

    At least SOMEONE is planning ahead! Cudo’s to those who do!

    THIS is what I’d like to see Curiosity find…

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