By Theresa Machemer/Smithsonianmag.com
The Perseverance Rover is about to gather a rock collection with no equal. On February 18, the rover landed in Mars’ Jezero Crater to gather rock samples and begin searching for signs of ancient microbial life in visible deltas where water once flowed. The rover is set to fill 38 glass tubes with samples of Mars’ surface, then send them to Earth like pebbly postcards, souvenirs to show scientists where it has been. But the samples will need to travel a complicated delivery route to get to their final destination.
The mission, called Mars Sample Return, will require two more rocket launches from Earth, currently slated for 2026 and 2031, and one rocket launch from Mars, which could become the first launch from another planet. If the plan runs smoothly, the mission will provide the first cache of rock samples from another planet—complete with details about when, where and how they were collected. The mission will culminate with the samples crash-landing on the mudflats of the Utah Test and Training Range. Scientists on Earth will then be able to scour the samples for details about the Red Planet’s climate, geological history and even subtle signs of life.