Missions to Mars: Mars Sample Return
iMARS stands for “international Mars Architecture for the Return of Samples”. It is an international committee founded under the umbrella of the International Mars Exploration Working Group (IMEWG).
The Phase I iMARS-team was created to perform preparatory studies for the Mars Sample Return mission (MSR), and to research the readiness of international partnerships for such an ambitious project. In Phase I, the iMARS-team studied the many challenges and problems and made recommendations to the IMEWG-consortium by means of:
Dr. Didier Moreau from BIRA-IASB was the Belgian representative to IMEWG since 2006 by request of Werner Verschueren (Belgian representative to ESA for exploration), and dr. Frank Daerden replaced him in this function in 2009. Together with dr. Christian Muller, also from BIRA-IASB, they formed the Belgian representation to the iMARS-consortium, whose work NASA recognised with a prestigious award in April 2009: the NASA Group Achievement Award.
Dr. Ann Carine Vandaele was nomited by BELSPO as the Belgian representative to IMEWG in 2014 and took part to the discussions of the Phase II iMars Working Group.
The Phase II iMARS science team describe their approach and some preliminary organizational and operational models for a fully international sample-science management paradigm.
Scientific management of the samples - from reception on Earth to distribution amongst the scientific community and through to long-term curation for many decades hence - is a diverse and complex issue. Samples returned from Mars would be amongst the most scientifically interesting and valuable materials ever recovered and would be the focus of intensive study and investigation for decades to come. Future MSR mission(s) would be international in nature, and a key driver for our discussions is to ensure that any processes we suggest enable internationally collaborative research. A further constraint is the issue of planetary protection, whereby samples must remain in containment until proven non-hazardous to Earth's biosphere and environment. However, a genuine concern is that the samples become "stuck in containment" and unavailable for wider scientific study. A wide range of geobiological analyses would be carried out, and an important part of planning for MSR is deciding which analyses must be carried out within containment and what could or should be done outside of containment. In addition, the nature and type of geobiological investigations carried out in situ by future missions would have an important influence on activities carried out once samples return to Earth by informing decisions made during preliminary examination, early science, and planetary protection investigations. Our team is strongly committed to disseminating our work to our colleagues in the geo-, bio- and planetary science communities to ensure that a productive dialogue is achieved.
Belgium and a brief history of Mars research
BIRA-IASB and the Belgian Space Research authorities have long shown interest and actively participated in the space-based exploration of mars and in atmospheric science. BIRA-IASB was involved in Mars-missions PHOBOS (USSR, 1988) and Mars 96 (USSR, 1996, failed after launch), and has been working for the last 5 years in the ongoing ESA-mission Mars Express, via the Belgo-French instrument SPICAM.
BIRA-IASB scientists develop and use research tools to analyse the measured data and to simulate the Mars atmosphere using large supercomputers. Dr. Daerden used such computer models for example in the analysis of data from the 2008 NASA Phoenix-mission to Mars.
Belgium is also a significant contributor to the ESA/NASA ExoMars-mission, which has been launched in 2016 and has now started observations aroud Mars. Their representation in iMARS emphasises Belgian interest in advanced Mars research and exploration.