Page last updated at 19:33 GMT, Thursday, 10 July 2008 20:33 UK

Date set for Mars sample mission

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How the Mars Sample Return mission will work

Space officials have set a date of 2018 for launching an unmanned international mission designed to return samples of Martian rock and soil to Earth.

Mars Sample Return is billed as the most complex and costliest exploration of Mars ever conceived.

Once samples are on Earth, laboratories will be able to extract more data than by remote control using, for example, a robotic rover on the Martian surface.

A working group has come up with a mission profile and flight design.

The panel has released its preliminary report, in which it also warns that the mission faces many hurdles ahead.

"2018 will start the era of Mars Sample Return," Doug McCuistion, director of Nasa's Mars Exploration Programme, told a press conference in Paris.

The report's authors said that, regardless of the start date, it would take five years for the precious 500g (1.1lb) sample to be returned to Earth, and the world's major space powers had to pool resources to achieve the extraordinary goal.

Flight design

Stephane Janichewski, deputy director of France's National Centre for Space Studies (Cnes), said "at least a transatlantic cooperation" was needed between Europe and the US to fulfil this "very challenging" project.

"It's a sort of (Holy) Grail we are looking for," said Mr Janichewski, referring to the project's scope.

In the most optimistic scenario, a US Atlas A 551 rocket would lift off in 2018 carrying a mobile rover - or stationary lander - that would be dropped down to the Martian surface to collect samples selected to give the broadest picture possible of the planet's geological past.

The payload would include a Mars Ascent Vehicle which would later blast off with the sample onboard.

In 2019, an Ariane 5 ECA heavy rocket would take off, sending an orbiter to Mars. The Mars Ascent Vehicle would leave the Red Planet with the sample container and drop it off in Martian orbit, where it would be captured by the orbiter.

The spacecraft would then start the long haul back to Earth, eventually dropping off the sample in an "Earth Entry Vehicle" designed to survive the fiery descent through the atmosphere.

It would then be retrieved and analysed.

"Of the various places of interest for evaluating whether or not life exists or has existed elsewhere in the Universe, Mars is by far the most accessible," the preliminary planning report noted.

The document said the cost would roughly range from $4.5bn to $8bn (3bn to 5.3bn euros) "depending on the final requirements and international cooperative structure".

MARS SAMPLE RETURN
Infographic, BBC
1) In 2018, an US Atlas A 551 rocket lifts off from Earth carrying a mobile rover or stationary lander
2) The rover or lander is dropped down to Mars to pick up samples of rock and soil. Included with this payload is a small rocket - a Mars Ascent Vehicle
3) In 2019, a European 5 ECA heavy rocket takes off from Earth, sending an orbiter to Mars
4) The Mars Ascent Vehicle blasts off from the Red Planet with the sample container and drops it off in Martian orbit, where it is captured by the spacecraft
5) The orbiter journeys back to Earth, eventually dropping off the sample in a vehicle designed to survive the fiery plunge through our atmosphere




SEE ALSO
Nasa's chief talks new approach
15 Mar 08 |  Science/Nature
Space agencies will 'co-ordinate'
31 May 07 |  Science/Nature

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