Jun 28, 2022 - Science

U.S. and China strive for Mars rocks

Illustration of a gold medal ribbon with Mars in place of a medal

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Rocks from Mars are a prize for the U.S. and China.

Why it matters: Experts stress parallel missions by the two countries to return rock and dirt samples from the Red Planet aren't being driven solely by competition, but the nation that sends back samples first will get international bragging rights and a scientific edge.

  • Mars is a technically difficult target in the solar system, reserved for only the most advanced space-faring nations.
  • Completing a sampling mission would be a scientific boon for the nation that achieves it. Returning Mars rocks to Earth, which has never been done before, could allow scientists to figure out if the planet once supported life and under what conditions it may have thrived.

What's happening: NASA and the European Space Agency are moving ahead with a joint mission to bring Martian samples now being collected by the Perseverance rover back to Earth by 2033.

  • That mission will make use of two landers expected to launch to Mars in 2028 and an orbiter to launch in 2027, all of which will be used to help collect samples and launch them back to waiting scientists on Earth.
  • China recently revealed more details about its own effort to bring samples to Earth two years earlier, in 2031.
  • The mission, called Tianwen-3, will build on the technology of the nation's Tianwen-1 spacecraft, which landed on Mars last year, and the Chang’e-5 mission, which delivered a sample from the Moon to Earth.

What they're saying: Samples collected by NASA with Perseverance aren't expected to arrive back on Earth for about a decade.

  • "That tells me that we're not really serious about giving this a very high priority," John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios.
  • "China is doing these things because it thinks there is important stuff to learn, material to obtain, knowledge to expand and — by the way — some bragging rights," says Dean Cheng, a space analyst focusing on China at the Heritage Foundation.

The big picture: NASA has a long history of sending successful rover and lander missions to Mars, but the science that can be done with even a small sample of Martian material brought back to Earth would make everything else pale in comparison.

  • "Having pristine Mars samples here available on Earth for many years to come, will allow scientists to pursue new questions, new avenues of investigation in response to new discoveries in a way that's not fully possible on a rover," said Katherine French, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey advising NASA on its Mars sample return mission.
  • Bringing samples back to Earth would allow scientists to get an accurate measurement of how old the rocks are, pinpointing when Mars may have been habitable. Powerful tools in labs could also parse out whether organic material in the samples was created by life or another process.
  • And like the Moon rocks brought back during Apollo, NASA may be able to save some of the Mars samples for years after their return to eventually analyze them with more advanced technologies.
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