Mars Sample Return Simulation: Preparing our Country for the Future

Post-landing panorama

Has life ever existed anywhere else in the solar system? Perhaps on Mars?

Scientists from around the world are currently trying to develop ways to figure that out. On Earth, we know that signs of ancient life can sometimes be found within certain types of rocks, and so one of the best ways to find out if there has ever been life on Mars may be to look inside similar rocks found there.

However, the miniaturized instruments used on space missions will always have more limited abilities than sophisticated laboratories on Earth, which is why there is a strong desire to bring samples back to Earth to be analyzed. Before being able to return these samples, though, we first need to test and determine how to best select and collect them.

From October 31 to November 18, 2016, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is leading a Mars sample return simulation in the Utah desert where these key activities will be practised. Multiple collaborators from academia, industry, and international space agencies, will be involved.

Why was Utah selected?

Utah was selected based on its geological features that are very similar to those found on Mars. The site selected is an ancient streambed, much like features that are observed on Mars. Ancient streambeds may preserve signs of ancient life. The analogue mission can allow scientists to better understand how to explore this kind of feature with a rover, and test possible approaches that may make exploration more efficient.

Did you know?

A typical Mars sample return mission would involve three phases:

  1. sample selection and collection, where the rover would select the samples, collect them and leave them at a specific site.
  2. sample retrieval and transfer, where another rover would go to the selected site to pick up the samples and bring them back to a rocket, or ascent vehicle.
  3. sample return, where the rocket would send the samples into orbit to be captured by another spacecraft for return to Earth.

During this simulation, two of these phases will be tested.

The Simulation

Sample Selection and Collection

Objective: Learning how to identify the best samples

Date: October 31 to November 10, 2016

A science team will be working with the CSA from the science operations centre at Western University in London, ON. They will use the CSA's Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR) and develop a science plan to identify and characterize rocks that may contain signs of life. Selected samples ("cores") will then be collected using a drilling tool.

As would be the case in a real Mars mission, the science team will have to remain within the MESR's power capacity and its data collection and transfer limits, all while respecting the restricted telecommunication window with the rover. They will also juggle with competing science priorities, regroup to troubleshoot issues that may arise, and experience the excitement of success when they collect their first samples.

At the end of each day, they will upload their science plan for the following day to the CSA's rover operations team, based at the CSA headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Quebec. The rover operations team's role is to make sure that this plan can be followed. On the next day, once everything has been verified, the CSA will send commands to the rover through a satellite communication relay.

This simulation is a great way to train our country's next generation of planetary space explorers in one of the most realistic "planetary exploration" settings accessible on Earth.

Sample Retrieval and Transfer

Objective: Demonstrating new technologies for handling samples while increasing expertise

Date: November 11 to 18, 2016

During this phase of the mission, the CSA will be testing and demonstrating new technologies. For instance, they will use the MESR and its manipulator arm and grapple system to capture the sample tubes collected in the initial phase of the mission. They will then store them in containers on the rover. The MESR will later return the samples to a mock-up rocket, or Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), for delivery. This phase of the mission ends when the samples are placed on the MAV. In a real Mars mission, the rocket would then send these samples into orbit to be captured by another spacecraft for their safe return to Earth.  

MESR uses its manipulator arm and grapple system to capture sample tubes collected. They are then stored in containers on the rover and later transferred from MESR to a mock-up rocket. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency)

Participating in these types of tests continues to build on existing partnerships with international space agencies, and positions Canada to be a key partner in potential future planetary exploration missions.

Scientific Validation of Samples

Objective: Validating that the "best" samples were collected

Date: November 11 to 18, 2016

While the MESR will be doing the sample retrieval and transfer phase, a team of field experts (including members of the science team and collaborators from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), University of Nevada at Las Vegas, the UK Space Agency (UKSA), Canadian scientists, and the CSA) will be on site in Utah. They will be collecting samples that they believe have the best chances of containing signs of life. The idea is to compare their samples to the ones collected from the rover. While they do this analysis over the coming year, they will be able to see how effective their rover sample selection strategy was, which will allow them to eventually refine future Mars sample return mission concepts.

Collaborators

  • The Science Team (London, Ontario)
    • 32 undergraduate students, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows: Western University, University of Winnipeg, York University, McGill University, the University of British Columbia.
    • 12 researchers/professors: Western University, McGill University, University of Winnipeg, Canadensys, NASA/JPL, Stony Brook University, and the Open University (UK).
    • Led by Dr. Gordon (Oz) Osinski from Western University.
    • Role: Interpret data, plan daily operations for the simulation.
  • The Field Team (Utah, United States)
    • CSA employees, academics, and industry members specialized in robotics, telecommunications, field geology and science instrument operations.
    • Role: Establish and maintain communication links with the two other teams, troubleshoot, and ensure safe operations of the rover.
  • The Rover Operations Team (Saint-Hubert, Quebec)
    • CSA and industry members specialized in robotics engineering
    • Role: Validate the science plan developed by the Science Team, prepare command sequences, execute commands and monitor the systems.
  • NASA Headquarters / JPL
    • Role: Provide expertise from Mars mission operations, participate in scientific investigations and operations, and exchange with the CSA on the sample return technology developed and challenges encountered in preparing for a future mission.
  • UKSA
    • Role: Perform parallel and joint scientific investigations with the international team, while testing and validating instruments for the ExoMars rover mission.
  • DLR (German Aerospace Center)
    • Role: Test parallel rover sample collection and return techniques.

Past Missions and Funding

Since 2013, the CSA and Western University have collaborated on multiple analogue missions, funded by a Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The initiative has been led by Western University. This sample return analogue mission marks the final year of the collaboration.

Both Western and McGill universities have received grants to support the science operations involved in this analogue mission as part of the CSA Space Exploration Science Definition Studies announcement of opportunity.