A number of ambitious sampling missions are on their way to the launch ramps.
Sampling campaigns have taught us a lot about the Moon, Sun, comets and asteroids, but scientists lack answers to a series of questions about the composition of solar system bodies, and about the origin of life.
Among other things, upcoming expeditions will give us new knowledge about the birth of the Moon and the moons of Mars.
Perhaps dust from Mars, collected in small metal tubes and transported millions of kilometers through space to Earth, can tell us whether there is life on the Red Planet.
Astronauts took the first samples
The first space mission ever to take samples was Apollo 11, the first manned mission to the Moon, which was carried out in July 1969.
Among other things, samples can tell researchers that the Moon is dry and that there are no traces of life there.
During six Apollo missions, 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 Soviet and Chinese lunar probes.
Despite numerous lunar missions and studies of matter, there is still much we don’t know about the Moon.
For example, scientists don’t really understand why the side of the Moon facing Earth always has darker plains of solidified lava than the back side of the Moon.
A sampling trip can help explain this.
Meteorites are contaminated
Geologists, chemists and physicists analyzed rock fragments from space long before the Apollo missions. The vast majority of them were fragments of asteroids.
The age of the oldest meteorites, as asteroid fragments are called when they land on Earth, is 4.568 billion years old, so astronomers today consider that to be the age of the solar system.
Analyzes of meteorite are complicated by the fact that it is difficult to determine the exact source of the rock fragments.
In addition, their surface dissolves in the atmosphere, and then volatile substances, including water, disappear from them. In addition, meteorites will be contaminated with terrestrial materials.
Therefore, scientists prefer to analyze dust and particles that are brought to Earth from untouched space objects.
Such samples have already given us a number of insights into the formation of the solar system.
Many scientific instruments are too large, heavy or power-hungry for space missions, including electron microscopes, which can see a thousand times more detail than ordinary microscopes.
On Earth, we also have equipment to perform so-called petrographic analysis, which detects different minerals and structures in a sample.
If they are small fragments, this may mean that the stone was, for example, collided with another celestial body, and if it contains glass particles, the material must have melted.
In the lab, researchers can also find isotopes, which are different forms of the same element, which can show when the substance was formed.
This type of analysis can also show whether Earth’s water came from asteroids or comets.
When the OSIRIS-REx mission lands samples from the asteroid Bennu later this month, it will be the second time in just a few years that scientists have pulled off such a maneuver.
On December 5, 2020, Japan’s Hayabusa-2 mission landed with 5.4 grams of dust and gravel from the asteroid Ryugu.
It has been found that dust contains many complex carbon molecules necessary for the formation of life.
Meteorite impacts on young Earth may have helped life scramble. Therefore, studying material from asteroids like 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’s March that applies
There are many excursions to bring specimens home en route.
Although the Moon is the celestial body from which we have obtained the most samples, we have never extracted any material from the back side of the Moon, which is always farther away from Earth. China wants to change this through the Chang’e 6 mission, which will above all give us new knowledge about the formation of the moon more than four billion years ago.
However, the really big target for the scientists behind the upcoming sampling missions is Mars and its moons.
Japan is sending the MMX (Mars Moons Exploration) spacecraft to the Mars moon Phobos, China is planning a Mars expedition, Tianwen-3, and the United States is cooperating with Europe on a Mars exploration mission.
Since 2021, NASA’s large Perseverance spacecraft has circled what looks like a dry river delta and taken several drill samples.
Today Mars is a cold desert planet whose surface is bombarded by cosmic radiation, but once upon a time Mars was warmer and wetter than today, and a magnetic field may have protected the planet from the worst of the radiation. It is not at all unlikely that life originated there.
Samples stored in sealed cylinders must first be placed aboard a small rocket that is launched into the air by a robotic vehicle.
In the air, the rocket engine ignites, and the rocket then flies to a spacecraft in orbit around Mars. There, the samples are finally placed in a capsule that is sent toward Earth.
When researchers have the opportunity to examine specimens, it becomes especially interesting to know whether they contain traces of prehistoric life.
It is very unlikely that there is life on Mars today, but to be safe, space agencies are still preparing for the possibility that samples taken from Mars may contain living organisms, which are not allowed to reach Earth.
Therefore, research laboratories built to receive Martian samples must have the same safety rating as laboratories that handle highly dangerous microorganisms, such as the virus that causes Ebola.
It would be a great feeling if scientists could conclude that life once arose on Mars, independently of life on Earth.
That is, it means that life arises as soon as circumstances allow it. Then there is also likely to be life on many other planets around the Milky Way and in other galaxies.
A tiny handful of Martian dust may show that we’re not alone in the universe.
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