Currently, there are several ambitious projects in which sample collection vessels are headed to launch pads.
Sample retrieval missions have taught us a lot about the Moon, Sun, comets, and asteroids, but scientists still lack answers to a number of questions about the origins of the solar system and life.
Future missions will, among other things, give us new insights into how our Moon and the moons of Mars originated.
Perhaps dust from Mars, collected in small metal tubes and transported by air millions of kilometers to Earth, could show us whether there is life on the red planet.
Astronauts took the first samples
The first spaceflight ever to take samples was the first manned mission to the Moon, in July 1969: Apollo 11.
Among other things, samples can tell researchers that the Moon is completely dry, and that there is no trace of life there.
During six Apollo missions, a total of 382 kilograms of dust and rocks were brought back from the surface of the Moon.
Another two kilograms of lunar dust were brought to Earth by unmanned lunar probes from the Soviet Union and China.
But despite all the trips to the moon and studies of matter, there is still a lot we don’t know about the moon.
For example, scientists don’t fully understand why the side of the Moon facing Earth always has darker plains of hardened lava than the back side of the Moon.
A sample retrieval mission can help clarify this.
Meteorites are contaminated
Geologists, chemists, and physicists analyzed rocks from space long before the Apollo missions. The vast majority of them were pieces of asteroids.
The oldest meteorites – as they are called when they land on the Earth’s surface – are 4.568 billion years old, so astronomers today believe that this must be the age of the solar system.
One of the disadvantages of analyzing meteorites is that it is difficult to determine their exact source.
In addition, the surface dissolves in the atmosphere, so volatiles such as water on the road disappear. In addition, meteorites are contaminated with materials from Earth.
Therefore, researchers prefer to analyze dust and particles brought to Earth from untouched objects in space.
Such tests have already given us a number of insights into the formation of the solar system.
Many scientific instruments are too large, heavy, or energy-intensive to travel into space, such as electron microscopes, which can be magnified a thousand times as much as ordinary microscopes.
On Earth, for example, we have equipment to perform what is called petrographic analysis, which detects different minerals and structures in a sample.
If the material is fragmented, this may mean that the sample has undergone, for example, a collision with another astronomical body, and if it contains glass particles, then the material must have melted.
In laboratories, researchers can also find isotopes – different versions of the same element – which can show when the substance was formed.
Such analyzes could also tell if the water on Earth came from asteroids or comets.
When the OSIRIS-REx probe lands this month, carrying samples from the asteroid Bennu, it will be the second time in as many years that scientists have performed this maneuver.
- In December 2020, the Japanese probe Hayabusa-2 landed with 5.4 grams of dust and pebbles from the asteroid Ryugu.
It was found that the dust contains many complex carbon-containing particles that are necessary for the formation of life.
Meteor strikes on the young Earth may have helped life on its way. Therefore, studying material from asteroids such as Bennu and Ryugu can not only help astrophysicists write the history of the solar system, but also bring them one step closer to solving the mystery of the origin of life on Earth.
Now it applies to Mars
There are many other sample collection probes on their way.
Although the Moon is the globe from which we have obtained the greatest number of samples, we have never recovered material from the back side, which is always farthest from the Earth. China wants to change that with the Chang’e 6 mission, which in particular will give us new knowledge about how the moon came to be, more than four billion years ago.
But the really big target for the scientists behind future sample retrieval missions is Mars and the planet’s moons.
Japan is sending the MMX (Mars Moon Exploration) spacecraft to Mars’ moon Phobos, China is planning a mission to Mars called Tianwen-3, and the United States is working with Europe on a mission called Mars Sample Return.
Since 2021, NASA’s large Perseverance spacecraft has been moving through what looks like a dry river delta, collecting a number of drilling samples.
Today, Mars is a cold desert planet with its surface bombarded by cosmic radiation, but Mars was once warmer and wetter than today, and the magnetic field may have protected the planet from the worst of the radiation. Simply put, it is not unlikely that life could originate here.
The samples, stored in sealed cylinders, will first be loaded onto a small rocket that will be launched into the air by a robotic ship.
In the air, the rocket ignites its engine and flies to a spacecraft orbiting Mars. Here, the samples are finally placed in a capsule that is launched towards Earth.
And when researchers get the samples, it will be especially exciting if they contain traces of prehistoric life.
Although it is unlikely that there will be life on Mars today, space agencies are preparing to ensure that samples taken from Mars may contain living organisms, which should not be released to Earth.
Therefore, the research laboratories that will be established to receive March samples will have the same level of safety as laboratories that deal with highly dangerous microorganisms such as the Ebola virus.
It would be an unparalleled sensation if scientists could conclude that life arose on Mars independently of life on Earth.
This means that life appears as soon as it has the opportunity. It is also likely that there is life on many other planets around the Milky Way and in other galaxies.
A handful of Martian dust may be proof that we are not alone in the universe
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