Collecting ‘soil’ on Mars is proving to be tricky.
The race is on to get a sample of Martian soil into the hands of scientists on Earth.
The soil on Mars is a mystery we are slowly solving. Each time a rover lands there, they bring along the latest scientific instruments and perform tests on samples collected in the field.
It’s not soil, it’s regolith.
Soil is composed of organic material and that’s not what we’re finding on Mars. It’s a rocky material, loose and granular. There’s not much in the way of nutrients in the regolith, but some have been identified.
In order to grow anything there, the regolith would have to be augmented with additions of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. We would also have to protect the plants from the extreme cold. More information is needed before we know exactly what would be needed.
Scientists are excited about the possibility of getting their hands on Martian regolith. Right now, NASA is attempting to collect samples for future transport to their labs on Earth.
The Perseverance Rover fumbled their first attempt.
One of the main goals for NASA’s current Mars mission is to collect and cache a pile of Martian samples. The rover is to use a special drill to collect core samples and seal them in special tubes. Then it will cache them in several locations on the surface, for collection on future missions.
The first attempt to collect a sample wasn’t successful. The drill worked and seemed to collect a core sample and sealed it in the tube.
But when the sealed sample was weighed, there was nothing there. So either the sample weighs nothing, or the collection didn’t work.
They’re going to take close-up photos of the drill site to see if they can tell what went wrong. It may also help them figure out how to choose a better site for the next attempt.
It’s not the first time they’ve run into problems.
The Phoenix mission (2008)found some icy samples that were sticky and it was hard to get them on board for testing. They were using a scoop and when they tried to dump it, the sample stuck in the scoop. After several tries they had success.
Curiosity (2012) had a lot of success in their soil sampling and testing. They did run into some rocks that turned out to be harder and more brittle than expected.
NASA Retrieval Plan 2026
NASA plans to return to Mars to retrieve the samples collected by the Perseverance this year.
The European Space Agency and NASA formed a partnership and are sending two ships in 2026.
One will land in the Jezero crater to meet the Perseverance. It will collect the samples and send them up to the second ship. The second ship will take the samples back to Earth and send the container to the ground.
They expect to have the samples in a lab for intensive study as early as September 2031. It’s a bold plan to work together to achieve the goal of returning samples to Earth.
Martian Moons eXploration 2024
Japan is hoping to be the first country to capture coveted samples from Mars, specifically one of their moons. The mission is called Martian Moons eXploration, or MMX.
The MMX plans to go into orbit around Phobos, the largest Martian moon. It will study Phobos using remote instruments for about a year, looking for a safe yet interesting place to land.
It’s an international collaboration. The MMX will have spectrometers contributed by CNES (France’s space agency) and NASA. The Japanese Broadcasting Corp will send a couple of ultra-high-resolution video cameras. They hope to capture some stunning views of Mars and its moons.
A German and French-built rover will descend and land on Mars to analyze the surface. Because we don’t know what kind of material is on Phobos, the rover will carry two sampling devices. One is a robotic-arm-mounted drill that can bore 10 centimeters beneath the surface. The other one works by using pressurized gas that blows material into a container.
MMX plans to lift off and return to Earth in 2029, dropping the samples by parachute to the scientists on the surface.
Fun Facts About Phobos
Phobos is the larger of the two moons orbiting Mars.
The other moon is called Deimos.
Both moons were discovered on Aug. 17, 1877, by Asaph Hall.
- He named Mars’ moons after the mythological sons of Ares, who was the Greek counterpart of the Roman god, Mars.
- The name Phobos means ‘fear’ and in mythology, he is the brother of Deimos, which means ‘dread’.
Phobos has no atmosphere and is in an orbit that is deteriorating.
It’s on a collision course with Mars.
It will eventually either crash on the planet, or break up and form a ring around Mars, however that’s not going to happen anytime soon. It will take 50 million years because it’s only getting six feet closer to Mars every 100 years.
Phobos is small as moons go. It’s 17 x 14 x 11 miles (27 by 22 by 18 km) in diameter. Earth’s moon is more than 100 times greater in diameter than Phobos.
Phobos’ orbit is much closer to Mars than the distance between Earth and Earth’s moon, so it seems much larger when viewed from the surface by the US Rover.
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