What feature do the Hayabusa-2, OSIRIS-REx, MMX and MSR missions share? Answer: they are all return missions whose goal is to retrieve extraterrestrial samples and bring them back to Earth for analysis by highly sophisticated instruments we can’t send into space. Such missions yield much more information than can be gleaned in situ. For example, analysis of lunar samples from Soviet missions and especially the Apollo programme enabled scientists to determine that the Moon was shaped by a giant impact a few million years after it formed. That kind of science would have been impossible to do on the Moon. The first two of the four abovementioned missions are already in operation, the third is in development and the fourth in preparation. CNES is involved or considering its involvement in all of them in one way or another.
On 3 October, the tiny French-German MASCOT lander touched down on the primitive asteroid Ryugu after its release from the Japanese Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, which is now poised to collect samples of Ryugu’s surface for their return to Earth in late 2020.
The U.S. OSIRIS-REx spacecraft recently arrived in the vicinity of asteroid Bennu. The first pictures beamed back from Bennu reveal a shape surprisingly similar to Ryugu’s, although at 900 metres across Ryugu is twice as large. Scientists have also been surprised by the mixture of very bright and very dark grey material on its surface and will now be working to understand where this diversity comes from. France and CNES are involved in this mission with scientists from four research laboratories attached to the national scientific research centre CNRS: CRPG, IAS, Lagrange and LESIA . OSIRIS-REx is also aiming to determine Bennu’s future trajectory more precisely. Bennu is an Earth-crossing asteroid or near-Earth object (NEO) which, according to calculations, will come closest to our planet in 2175 and 2199. While the asteroid isn’t about to crash into Earth any time soon, solar radiation can slightly modify its trajectory. It’s therefore important to measure this effect precisely to better predict its trajectory in the future.
The Japanese Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission aims to collect samples from Mars’ moon Phobos and return them to Earth. The key science goal is to unravel the mysteries surrounding this moon’s origins. With support from CNES, the IAS space astrophysics institute is developing an instrument capable of characterizing the mineral composition of Phobos’ surface. CNES and the German space agency DLR are also studying a small rover designed to operate in this very-low-gravity environment.
Lastly, the United States’ Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission is pursuing the holy grail of Mars exploration. The first stage of this mission will be the Mars 2020 lander, carrying the SuperCam instrument developed by the IRAP astrophysics and planetology research institute to analyse Martian rocks. Earlier this year, NASA and ESA signed a statement of intent to study their respective roles in the next stages of MSR. If the programme goes through to completion, Martian samples will arrive back on Earth towards the end of the next decade and tell us whether the red planet harboured life four billion years ago.
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