UAlberta leads urgent call for sample rocks from Mars

    International team of scientists outlines objectives for Mars Sample Return campaign.

    By Katie Willis on March 27, 2019

    In order to answer our most pressing questions about Mars, scientists need samples collected from the planet’s surface and returned to Earth for examination.

    A new publication with more than 70 authors from around the globe provides a blueprint for answering the big unknowns about the Red Planet, including important details for future exploration and understanding Mars’ origin.

    “We can only understand Mars to a certain point using remote sensing, such as rovers and orbiters,” said Chris Herd, lead collaborator on the paper and professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “To answer the big questions, we need to collect and return rock samples to Earth.”

    The recommendations are meant to provide guidance for the scientists involved in the NASA Mars 2020 mission, which will use a rover to collect and cache samples following its landing on the surface of Mars in spring 2021. Following this, the plan is for the samples to be fetched and returned to Earth, although funding for this step is not yet secure.

    Context is critical

    “Mars 2020 will let us choose where to collect samples and will allow us to get context for the rocks that are collected—their location, surrounding features, and more,” explained Herd, who is also curator of the University of Alberta Meteorite Collection. “Returning samples from Mars with that context is the holy grail of Mars exploration. That’s the reason why it's so important to bring these samples back.”

    The University of Alberta is home to more than 1,800 specimens of more than 275 meteorites. Herd, an internationally recognized expert in Martian meteorites, was lead author on two key sections of the paper, providing valuable insight into the current state of knowledge and the key scientific questions to be asked and answered about Mars.

    The paper, “The potential science and engineering value of samples delivered to Earth by Mars sample return,” was published in Meteoritics & Planetary Science (doi: 10.1111/maps.13242).