Friday, March 24, 2023

NASA seeks property to build Mars Sample Receiving Facility

NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) is soliciting information for a potential site location (real estate) in the United States for the construction of a Mars Sample Receiving Facility (SRF). The facility would manage handling samples returned from future Mars missions. A "Request For Information" document released Thursday details how the Mars samples will be handled.

Mars Sample Return Campaign Background

The planned Mars Sample Return (MSR) Campaign will collect and retrieve samples from the Red Planet and transport them back to Earth for detailed investigation. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have created an international partnership for MSR.

While the extent and scope of this partnership continue to be defined under a formal Memorandum of Understanding, substantial planning work has been initiated. The current baseline campaign includes three flight missions and one ground mission component.

Perseverance rover

NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on the planet in early 2021 and is currently collecting samples of Mars for potential future return to Earth. The samples that have been and will be acquired by the Perseverance rover vary in type and character and may include regolith/dust and breccias, sediments, carbonates and hydrated minerals, crater floor material, igneous rocks, and the Martian atmosphere.

Although more will be collected, the baseline sample return recovery and flight systems are capable of transporting about 30 Martian sample tubes back to Earth, containing a total of 500 grams of Martian material.

After launching into Martian orbit via a lander that collects and packages the sample tubes on a Mars ascent vehicle, and a series of sterilization and isolation steps to meet planetary protection requirements for Earth Return missions, the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) would then return to the vicinity of Earth.

It is anticipated that the ERO would approach Earth no earlier than 2033 and release the Earth Entry System (EES) for ballistic reentry through Earth’s atmosphere and landing, tentatively at the Utah Test and Training Range. Upon recovery, the EES would be placed in biosafety containment and transferred to the SRF.

SRF Goals and Requirements

As part of the initial investigation, a sample safety assessment will be performed to determine whether the samples are free of potential biological hazards, prior to the release of samples to analytical and curation facilities outside of containment.

The SRF must offer both cleanroom and high-containment capabilities. Activities in the SRF would include receiving the EES, accessing the samples, conducting a sample safety assessment, and performing initial characterization and cataloging. Potential further activities would also include executing select scientific analyses and providing for a transition to long-term curation and storage.

Traditional curation of extraterrestrial samples has previously been completed using cleanroom conditions; the MSR curation would additionally require biosafety containment at a high level of confidence.

Due to planetary protection requirements and the possibility that these samples could contain an unknown biohazard that poses a potential public health or environmental concern, the facility in which these samples are initially examined is provisionally thought to be Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) or BSL-4 equivalent.

If these samples are deemed abiotic (i.e., absent of life) and safe for release, a more traditional clean (uncontained) curation facility could be used for long-term handling and storage. If the samples are not deemed safe for release after the initial sample safety assessment (or the test results are not definitive), then a subset of the samples could be sterilized (and transferred to a traditional clean uncontained curation facility) and/or a subset could remain in biosafety containment until determined safe for release or conserved for future study.

In addition to providing high containment, the SRF would need to provide protection from contamination by terrestrial materials. Contamination control requirements for both organic and inorganic materials have not yet been finalized.

If samples are deemed safe for release, or rendered sterilized by an approved technique, the SRF would also be utilized to prepare samples for allocation to outside investigators as well as sample storage (until a long-term curation facility is constructed).

“This facility is intended to support the work of international collaborators and as such would require access capabilities to accommodate this personnel,” NASA said in the document.

NASA would like to have the SRF ready by 2031 to support two years of preparation for a 2033 return of samples.

The SRF requires both high containment and cleanliness/contamination control capabilities for all Martian material. This is to ensure that the materials are not released until demonstrated to be safe, and the samples kept pristine, free of terrestrial contamination, to allow for accurate scientific analysis.

NASA Invites Responses

NASA/JSC is seeking information and responses to questions from all interested parties with existing or planned high-containment facilities within the U.S., the agency said. Interested parties having the required real estate necessary to execute the requirements described/attached herein are encouraged to provide responses.” All responses must be submitted no later than April 7.

“This request for information will be used solely for information planning purposes and does not constitute a solicitation,” NASA said.

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