The NASA Perseverance rover stands surrounded by sample tubes on the surface of Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS) | SkyNews
The NASA Perseverance rover stands surrounded by sample tubes on the surface of Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Canada joins Mars sample return prep team

NASA’s Perseverance rover aims to deliver rocks back to Earth by 2033; a Canadian will be involved in bringing these precious payloads home. 

During the past few weeks, NASA’s Perseverance dropped 10 lightsaber-shaped rock sample tubes on the surface of Mars for possible pickup and stowed 10 “twin” samples inside its belly. Now, a Canadian is getting involved in this long journey to bring these precious payloads home. 

Kim Tait, who curates meteorites at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, has been with the Mars sample return mission since 2009. She is now part of an exciting new phase; as of January 2023, she is part of a formalized group working through the science aspects of the program.

Tait said one challenge is trying to determine how much of the sample should be used during science analysis and how much should be kept aside for future generations to have their shot at looking at it. “It’s a little bit of a shuffle,” she told SkyNews.

Aside from the science, Tait will prioritize training because the mission is so long — it will take 10 years to get the samples back, and bringing in new personnel will be a requirement. That begins with education and excitement, she said, as mentioning this mission to even an elementary school class could generate a potential lead for a mission participant in the coming years. 

One of her recent efforts involved delivering a presentation to a school with 450 children, in concert with the Canadian Space Agency. On the post-secondary side, she is teaching a theory course at the University of Toronto in Ontario, allowing students to learn about mission planning.

“One of the big questions is, if we find an organic signature now, what are we going to do differently?” Said Tait said. Organics are a possible sign of life, but not always, which makes planning difficult if Perseverance runs across such a sample.

The mission is ambitious, Getting the samples back to Earth will be a journey like no other ever taken in space exploration. A group of spacecrafts must safely launch to orbit and make it to the Red Planet on a journey that will take at least nine months. One of them will land on the surface, equipped with two helicopters.

The helicopters are backup. If Perseverance is not able to tote the samples to the spacecraft on its own, the little drones will grab the caches lying on the surface instead. Flying has been done before, incidentally; the Ingenuity helicopter accompanying Perseverance has well over 40 flights under its belt.

Then the spacecraft, laden with samples, will rocket to orbit and hand off everything to a return spacecraft for the long journey back to Earth. Landing will require protocols — now being written — to secure the samples against any possible contamination. The chance of bringing life back is small, and scientists will be very careful. 

Over the next few months, Tait and her group will be looking at how to use the samples — whether they will be in a central facility, or shipped to individual laboratories. They are working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to follow all biosafety protocols and ensure any pathogens are contained when the rocks are being transported.

“We’re working with the regulatory bodies to make sure that we have a procedure that is making everybody feel comfortable that the samples are safe and available for distribution,” said Tait. The goal is to get all this planning done now so that when the samples arrive, the team will be ready to go.

This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.