Inside NASA's Mission to Snatch Pieces of Mars and Bring Them Back to Earth

NASA"s team of robots and helicopters will attempt one of the most ambitious sample return missions yet.

Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
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  • Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
Claire Reilly
2 min read

Since it landed on Mars in 2021, NASA's Perseverance Rover has been pottering around the red planet, doing what Dad does at Costco: quietly hoovering up samples. And just like Dad does with those tasters of jumbo shrimp, Perseverance is already preparing to get those samples home. 

It is part of the Mars Sample Return Program, a years-long mission between NASA and the European Space Agency that will bring to Earth the first-ever specimens of rock and dust collected from the Martian surface, as well as (hopefully) a vial of Martian atmosphere. The goal is to bring the samples back by 2033, with many interim steps along the way.

The complex mission will send a new lander that will touch down on Mars, carrying two Ingenuity-style helicopters and a sample return rocket. The plan is for the Perseverance rover to drive its samples to the lander, with the helicopters acting as backup. 

Once the specimens arrive at the lander, they'll be handled by a series of robots and transferred onboard the 3-meter-tall Mars Ascent Vehicle. Then they'll blast into Martian orbit to meet ESA's Earth Return Orbiter for the journey home. 

Illustration showing the Perseverance rover, a Mars helicopter with wheels, a rocket, an obiter and a lander.

This illustration shows the bounty of robots required to pull off the Mars Sample Return mission.


It's a complex mission with a lot of moving parts. In our latest video in the CNET Explains series, we look at what it takes to get pieces of another planet back to Earth. 

We break down the mission step by step, looking at all the autonomous robots that need to work together flawlessly on a planet up to 400 million miles away. And we find out why a few precious vials of Martian material could unlock the secrets of our nearest planetary neighbor and give us physical evidence of ancient life elsewhere in our solar system. 

For a deep dive into the Mars Sample Return mission, check out the video above.