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Mars 2020: Searching for signs of past life on the red planet

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Rovers sent to Mars – like Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity – are designed to be the eyes and hands of scientists. Using their miniaturized tools and instruments, they analyze hundreds of rock and soil samples right on the spot and send data back to Earth. NASA's Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance, will use a drill to collect samples in precise locations selected by terrestrial experts. For the first time on the red planet, these small quantities of rock will be sealed and stored for possible return to Earth. As part of future missions, the samples could later be retrieved and brought to Earth for analysis with the full range of instruments available to scientists.

A Mars Sample Return campaign would involve three phases:

  1. Sample selection and collection: the rover would select the samples, collect them and leave them at a specific location.
  2. Sample retrieval and transfer: another rover would go to the selected location to pick up the samples and bring them back to a rocket, or ascent vehicle.
  3. Sample return: the rocket would send the samples into orbit around Mars to be captured by another spacecraft for return to Earth.
Artist's concept of NASA's Mars 2020 rover

An artist's concept of the Mars 2020 rover on the rugged surface of the red planet. Perseverance will search for evidence of a vastly different environment, including traces of ancient waterways. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)


The objectives of the Mars 2020 mission are to:

Scientists also learn about Mars through Martian meteorites, pieces of the red planet that have travelled here after being knocked off in cosmic collisions.

But surviving the journey through Earth's atmosphere means that these fragments are made of strong material which does not fully represent all types of rock on Mars. In fact, scientists believe evidence of past life could be locked inside rocks on Mars that are different in make-up from the meteorites that have landed here on Earth.

By using the Mars 2020 rover to collect and store unchanged samples from specific areas on Mars's surface for possible return to Earth, scientists are paving the way for a new understanding of our planetary neighbour.

Canada's role in the mission

The Canadian Space Agency is funding Dr. Chris Herd, professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta, to participate as a scientist on the Mars 2020 mission. Dr. Herd was selected by NASA as one of 10 experts designated to enhance the scientific value of the samples to be collected by the mission. Perseverance will be operating in Jezero Crater, a location just north of Mars's equator, that is home to several different types of rock that will help scientists meet their mission objectives.

Dr. Chris Herd, professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta. (Credit: Faculty of Science, University of Alberta)

Dr. Herd was also chosen to serve as one of two Returned Sample Scientist representatives on the mission's Project Science Group. In this role, he will be part of the team responsible for making critical operational and scientific decisions for the mission.

Dr. Herd will contribute his expertise in the analysis of igneous rocks and Martian meteorites to select samples that are most likely to provide key information about Mars's geological history. The Mars 2020 mission will also address fundamental questions about the potential for life on Mars.

Igneous rocks are one of three main types of rocks (along with sedimentary and metamorphic). They form when magma (molten rock) cools and crystallizes. They can have many different compositions, depending on what kind of magma they come from, and can vary in appearance based on their cooling conditions.

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