Japan aims to bring back soil samples from Mars moon by 2029

Japan’s space agency intends to return soil samples from the Martian region ahead of US and Chinese missions currently on the planet, in the hopes of uncovering clues to the planet’s origins and indications of probable life.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) aims to send an explorer to the Martian moon Phobos in 2024 to gather 10 grammes (0.35 ounces) of dirt and return it to Earth in 2029. Despite starting later, project manager Yasuhiro Kawakatsu said in an online press conference Thursday that the speedy return mission will put Japan ahead of the US and China in bringing back samples from the Martian region.

The Perseverance rover from NASA is currently operating in a crater on Mars, collecting 31 samples that will be delivered to Earth with the support of the European Space Agency as early as 2031. In May, China successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars, with hopes to return samples in 2030.

According to JAXA scientists, roughly 0.1 percent of the surface dirt on Phobos came from Mars, and 10 grammes of the soil might include about 30 granules, depending on the nature of the soil.

Soil on Phobos, according to Tomohiro Usui of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, is believed to be a mix of material from the moon and material from Mars distributed by sandstorms. He believes that collecting samples from many areas on Phobos will give them a better chance of finding traces of life on Mars than collecting soil from a single location on Mars.

According to JAXA scientists, any life forms that may have originated on Mars would have perished on Phobos because of the intense solar and cosmic radiation. The NASA and European Space Agency missions are looking for potential life forms and evolution in the Jezero crater area, which is thought to contain an ancient lake.

Scientists seek to learn about the evolution of the Martian ecosystem by analysing Phobos soil samples that include material from Mars, according to Usui.

Japanese study on Phobos and NASA samples from specific sites in the Martian crater, he added, can complement each other and lead to solutions to problems like how Martian life, if it exists, began and evolved in time and space.

Hayabusa2, a JAXA mission, returned more than 5 grammes (0.19 ounce) of soil from the asteroid Ryugu, which is more than 300 million kilometres (190 million miles) from Earth, in December, marking the first successful return of an asteroid sample.

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