An European Dream Team for Mars

In February 2021, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter (shown in an artist’s concept) will be the agency’s two newest explorers on Mars. Both were named by students as part of an essay contest. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

PARIS (ESA PR) — European scientists will help select rocks and soil from Mars in the search for life on our planetary neighbour.

Five European researchers are part of NASA’s Mars 2020 science team to select the most promising martian samples bound for Earth.

The mission to Mars launched today for its seven-month journey to the Red Planet. Once there, the team will guide the Perseverance rover as it hunts for evidence of ancient microbial life.

The group is made up of researchers from Belgium, France, Sweden and the UK. “These top scientists from across Europe are experts on how to collect, analyse and read the history of the rocks under our feet. Now they will also have to anticipate the needs and challenges of working with martian samples returned to laboratories back on Earth,” says ESA’s Mars Sample Return acting programme scientist Gerhard Kminek.

For the next three years, the team will be at the core of a wider NASA team.

Professor Mark Sephton of the Imperial College London. (Credit: Imperial College London)

Mark Sephton, Professor of organic geochemistry at Imperial College London in the UK, sees it as “a fantastic opportunity to have some of the finest minds in the world come together to solve one of the biggest questions in the Solar System: was there life on Mars?”  

Bring it back

Sandra Siljeström, from Sweden’s research institute RISE, dreams of having the “Bring it to me now!” feeling while remotely analysing a rock spotted on Mars at the rover landing site – the Jezero crater.

Sandra Siljeström in the lab in front of the ToF-SIMS, a spectrometer for surface analysis using a pulsed ion beam. (Credit: S. Siljeström)

The area contains sediments of an ancient river delta, where evidence of past life could be preserved if it ever existed on the planet.

Once the Perseverance rover retrieves samples of rock and soil from Mars, it will seal them in canisters and drop them on the surface to be collected by a future retrieval mission.

Overview of the ESA–NASA Mars Sample Return mission. (Credit: ESA–K. Oldenburg)

“The Mars 2020 mission is the first step for the ultimate martian challenge: the Mars Sample Return campaign. NASA and ESA aim to deliver the material from the martian surface to Earth by 2031,” adds Gerhard.

To bring Mars samples to Earth, three carefully timed missions are required.

NASA will deliver the ESA Sample Fetch Rover to the vicinity of the Mars 2020 landing site. This European rover will autonomously track down and collect up to 36 sample tubes deposited by Perseverance, and take them to NASA’s Mars Ascent vehicle.

Better together

Keyron Hickman-Lewis is a paleontologist who studies three thousand million year-old microbial fossils. (Credit: K. Hickman-Lewis)

The team of European scientists believes the road to Mars and back to Earth is like a long-distance run that is best undertaken together.

“I hope that, as a group of scientists with diverse expertise, we will help maximise the quality, depth and breadth of research possible with the returned samples,” says palaeontologist Keyron Hickman-Lewis, who has closely worked with ESA’s ExoMars rover team.

No place like Mars

Frederic Moynier is a cosmochemist who scrutinises both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial samples, including martian meteorites, and develops high-precision measurements to know more about the origin and evolution of planets. (Credit: F. Moynier)

Mars is currently the only planetary body accessible to humans on which scientists expect to find relatively unspoilt geological records from the early history of the Solar System.

Finding traces of life “would represent an incredible discovery and a be a gamechanger for our views on how organisms emerge,” says cosmochemist Frederic Moynier.

There is no place quite like Mars to find out whether the conditions for supporting life ever existed beyond Earth.

Université Libre de Bruxelles geochemist Vinciane Debaille (Credit: V. Debaille)

“The Red Planet is the perfect laboratory to check as the environment has dramatically changed over time,” says Vinciane Debaille, geochemist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, in Belgium.

Sandra has little doubt, “there will be surprises when we land on Mars”. She and her new team cannot wait to receive the first data.

The team

Learn more about the team of European experts, part of NASA’s Mars 2020 science team, on ESA’s Exploration blog: