But Farley, who is also a participating scientist on the Curiosity Mars rover mission, said he hopes Perseverance will find something so compelling in its search for ancient life that lawmakers will be forced to fund a return trip for the samples.
“The discoveries we make will play a role in the funding and politics,” he said. “There’s the potential that we will see something that will really compel a sample return. That’s the big dream that could come true.”
The mission, which is expected reach the Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, is also intended to collect data will that pave the way for a human voyage to the Red Planet, which has been a top priority for the Trump administration’s long-term space goals.
Some experiments, like a new instrument that will convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and a weather station to study the properties of Martian dust, are expected to provide information NASA needs before it sends humans to Mars, Farley said. The full sample return mission will also demonstrate the ability to launch from the Martian surface, a critical step of a crewed mission if those astronauts hope to get home.
Farley, who has worked at the California Institute of Technology since 1993, also spoke about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the program and how scientists plan to return samples from Mars to Earth.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
How is Perseverance different from past Martian rovers?
Most of the vehicle itself is heritage from Curiosity. That saves a lot of time, saves a lot of money, and allows engineers to focus on the new stuff.
On the rover itself, the major new feature is a sampling and caching system so we can collect samples, seal them up in individual containers and put those on the surface of Mars. … That’s the first step in the Mars sample return mission.
The most important new instrument will allow us to look for the signatures of ancient life on Mars. We’ll be looking for fossil evidence in rocks that are 3.5 billion years old.
How will its mission help prepare for a future human landing?
This mission is unique in that it is a joint effort of the Science Mission Directorate … with engagement from the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and also the Space Technology Mission Directorate. So those directorates were in on the ground floor.
From the human side, we have several pieces of hardware and investigations that are enabling for future human Mars exploration. The most obvious example is we’re carrying a technology demonstration instrument called MOXIE [the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment]. What MOXIE does is it demonstrates the conversion of atmospheric carbon dioxide into oxygen gas. … The beauty of converting CO2 into oxygen is that you don’t have to bring all the oxygen you need with you. That oxygen is used both for breathing and part of the propellant to get astronauts off the surface.
We also have a weather station that allows us to characterize environmental conditions, including the properties of dust. From a human exploration standpoint, dust is a big unknown that is challenging.
Nothing has ever been launched off the surface of Mars before, so if we’re going to bring astronauts back, a demo with much lower consequences if we fail is a part of the plan. That’s part of the motivation for Mars sample return.
Why is dust so problematic?
It’s abrasive. It gets into things that don’t wish to have dust in them. It’s also potentially a human health hazard. It’s an inhalation hazard. We don’t know enough about it to evaluate it yet.
What’s next for the sample return mission?
Mars 2020 is the first step in a notional three-mission campaign. Our goal is to collect the samples and leave them on the surface for this pair of future missions. The planning is moving forward on those future missions. There’s an agreement between NASA and [the European Space Agency] to work together on follow-on missions … possibly launching in 2026 or 2028, which are the next two opportunities that will work for this.
The idea is those two missions will consist of a lander with a rocket and a rover, and a second mission, which is an orbiter. Here’s how those would work: The lander with the rover will land near the samples. The little rover called Fetch drives over, picks up the samples, loads them onto the rocket and the rocket launches. The samples are contained in a container … about the size of a soccer ball.
The third mission is the orbiter, which captures that ball of samples. It seals them. This is an important step because by international treaty, we have to protect the Earth from materials that may have been in contact with another biosphere. This collection of samples needs to be sealed inside a separate container that has never seen the Martian surface, such that when it is brought back to Earth, we’re not placing Martian surface materials in the Earth environment until we get it in a secure facility.
This third mission captures and seals the samples, then transports the material inside this sealed container back to Earth, landing it likely in Utah [at the] Utah Test Range, where NASA has frequently landed things coming from space.
What can you do to advocate for funding for the other two sample return missions?
The discoveries we make will play a role in the funding and politics. … We have the goal of looking for evidence of ancient life. There’s the potential that we will see something that will really compel a sample return. That’s the big dream that could come true.
How long could sample boxes be viable if future missions aren’t funded right away?
Samples can last a long time, tens of years. From when we started this project … in 2013 until the beginning of last year, NASA was relatively silent about us being part of a Mars sample return campaign because there was no commitment to doing it. … We started out assuming these samples would have to spend a lot of time waiting. … [The sample tubes] are sealed in such a way that they can remain on the surface of Mars or in orbit … for several decades.
Has coronavirus impacted the mission at all?
JPL has been designing and building this spacecraft since 2013. When coronavirus really started to get going in March, we were a few tens of days away from being finished. If this had happened in fall of last year, it would have been a totally different situation. We had hundreds and hundreds of people in the lab to get it done. We got the spacecraft shipped to the Cape before March.
There are a relatively small number of extremely important components getting finished, the most important of which are sample tubes. They have to be ultra-clean. If we’re going to look for evidence of extraterrestrial life, we can’t have any terrestrial life on them. JPL basically went into shutdown mode, where only absolutely critical activities were allowed. There are lots of precautions of people not working too close together. People are used to wearing protective gear, so that’s not a huge addition to their behavior.
We have a team at the Cape … building the spacecraft up and turning it over to the people who will launch it. … It is a few tens of JPL employees who typically spend a few weeks there and then come back. There’s normally a continuous exchange between JPL and Kennedy Space Center. That’s not what you’d want to do if you want to minimize coronavirus. … We actually had access to a NASA aircraft that was flying out of Armstrong Flight Research Center carrying our people once or twice a week from here to the Cape and back. … It helped us avoid the risk of commercial air travel and also flights just disappeared.