Tuesday, June 17, 2014

SCIM - Sample Collection to Investigate Mars and return Samples by 2020

SCIM - Sample Collection to Investigate Mars, will return the first samples of Martian materials to Earth without the complexity and risk of landing, and at a fraction of the cost.

Credit: BoldlyGo.org

A private mission could return Martian samples to Earth by 2020 without even touching down on the Red Planet.

The BoldlyGo Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit, is working to develop the Sample Collection to Investigate Mars (SCIM) mission, which would send a spacecraft skimming through the atmosphere of Mars to gather dust and return home, without the difficulty of landing.

SCIM could launch as soon as 2018, possibly returning samples to Earth in July 2020.

"It sounds very daring, but it's really very doable," Laurie Leshing, a member of the BoldlyGo board of directors, said during a presentation June 3 at the 224th American Astronomical Meeting in Boston.

"This is something we can do today."

A dusty 'catcher's mitt'
Scheduled to interact with the planet during the dustiest season of the year, the spacecraft would dip down to between 22 and 25 miles (35 and 40 kilometers) inside the Martian atmosphere.

It would carry cells filled with aerogel that would act "as a catcher's mitt," Leshing said, as it hurtled through the Martian sky.

The Sample Collection to Investigate Mars (SCIM) particle capture device proposed by the BoldlyGo Institute relies on cells filled with aerogel inspired by the successful Stardust sample return mission shown in this image.

Credit: NASA

The gel would scoop up thousands of tiny particles, heat-sterilizing them before bringing them inside the capsule, where they could travel safely to Earth.

Several different designs for the "catcher's mitt" are still under consideration.

The sterilization process would ensure the material could be safely returned to Earth without contamination concerns, while still preserving scientific objectives, Leshing told Space.com.

The mission would follow the guidelines for international planetary protection protocols established by the Committee on Space Research.

Although the atmosphere doesn't seem like the ideal place to learn about the surface of Mars, dust storms on the Red Planet stir up material affected by weathering, precipitation and volcanism.

"Think of it as a microscopic average rock collection from Mars," Leshing said.

Back on Earth, scientists could process these Martian materials to an extent that just can't be accomplished on Mars, allowing many researchers around the world to perform a variety of tests.

Indeed, most scientists regard sample-return as the best way to look for signs of life on Mars.

"On Earth, we can literally slice up a sample in dozens of pieces," Leshing said.

Because the SCIM craft wouldn't have to land, it wouldn't have the blunted appearance of missions like NASA's Curiosity rover, which touched down in August 2012.

The bullet-shaped SCIM body wouldn't need to slow down, because it would pass through the atmosphere without stopping.

After passing through the Martian atmosphere, SCIM would emerge on the far side of the planet. It would engage in a slight orbital correction maneuver, using its 22-Newton thruster, and return to Earth, where the sample would be dropped into the desert.

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