How NASA will launch samples of Mars to the red planet
Work is underway on a key part of NASA’s Mars Sample Return Plan.
The Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) is a small, lightweight, two-stage solid-propellant rocket with a large assignment: blast rock, silt, and atmospheric specimens.
The MAV, developed by Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, will be packaged with NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL), another major part of the sample return mission. The two-in-one spacecraft – MAV and SRL – will touch near or below the Jezero crater, where NASA’s Perseverance rover is already collecting samples from Mars. A second lander carrying a European Space Agency (ESA) “Fetch Rover” will land in the same area.
Fetch Rover will bring perseverance samples to MAV. The rocket will be launched into Mars orbit, where ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will capture its sample-filled container. The ERO will then bring the samples to Earth, using the Earth Entry System (EES) for high-speed, non-parachute landing in the Utah Desert in 2033, if all goes according to plan.
That sample return capsule, also designed by Lockheed Martin, is made of a lightweight composite structure, overlaid by special thermal protective material provided by NASA’s AIIMS Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
Humanity has never before returned to the original specimens on Mars, and there are significant challenges facing the team trying to make them happen, says Steve Sides, senior program manager at Lockheed Martin’s Mars Ascent Vehicle Integrated Systems (MAVIS) in Huntsville, Alabama.
Aim, point and shoot
The MAV is less than 10 feet high and 1.5 feet in diameter (3 by 0.5 meters), Sides told Space.com. “It’s a relatively small rocket,” he said, “so aim, point and shoot.”
Lockheed Martin Space is providing NASA with multiple MAV test units and flight units. Work under the agreement includes the design, development, testing and evaluation of the integrated MAV system and the design and development of ground support equipment for the rocket.
The potential value of the cost-plus-fixed-fee MAVIS agreement is $ 194 million and will increase for six years. The clock is ticking. The SRL-MAV pair is currently set to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2028, and has begun a long journey to the Red Planet.
“The goal is to land there early in the year and take off before the [Mars] winter hits,” Sides explained.
Loft and lighting
An innovative aspect of MAV design is the use of a gas-derived concept – a vertically drawn controlled tip-off release or short vector. This is a lightweight technique led by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which is developing SRL.
The MAV will carry about 30 sample tubes, which will be loaded into the rocket from the fetch rover by SRL’s robotic arm. The MAV will then be thrown into the thin Martian air, about 18 feet (5.5 m) above the lander, which doubles as a launch pad. At that point, the rocket’s first-stage motor will explode, Sides said.
“Throwing a rocket and launching it has been done before, but never on Mars,” Sides said. The VECTOR approach reduces blowback and interference in SRL, he explained.
Once ignited, the rocket launches a high tail into the orbit of Mars. “Ultimately, MAV is obtained at a rate of about 4,000 meters per second [8,950 mph, or 14,400 kph] to reach the speed of Mars’ release,” Sides said.
After the first phase separation, the second phase spinup motors are activated to stabilize the steady-ignition phase and then rotate downwards. “We’ll be coasting for 10 to 15 days,” the sides said. At that point, a beacon on the upper stage will transmit its location for visits and capture through the system on the ERO.
Quick and concrete step
“We’ve never launched a rocket from Mars, so there’s a lot of technology involved here,” Sides said. “But we’re also going to get a lot of science out of those Mars samples.”
Indeed, returning samples from Mars has been on NASA’s list of tasks for decades. “It’s hard, but the technology and the time are right to do it. We have to do it,” Sides said. “I’m not going to put it in the easy category… but I’m not going to put it in the ‘anobatenium’ category,” he added. “We have the capacity now.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of science at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, said in an agency statement (opened in a new tab) in February that committing to MAV “is an early and concrete step to unravel the details of this ambitious project.
Pieces and pieces
Those pieces and pieces of Mars will land loudly in the Utah desert.