This illustration shows multiple robots that would work together to collect Martian samples and return them to Earth.

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The Perseverance rover now has a new job: acting as a location scout on Mars.

In addition to collecting the first samples from an ancient river delta on the red planet, the robotic explorer has been scouting out flat areas around Jezero Crater that could serve as a landing site for the Mars Sample Return Campaign.

This ambitious initiative, a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency, will rely on multiple missions to fetch samples collected by Perseverance and return them to Earth over the next decade. These specimens will be the first Martian samples returned to Earth.

“I’m a geologist, meteorologist, photographer, etc. Now I can add ‘location scout’ to the list. I’ve been scoping out spots where Mars Sample Return spacecraft could set up operations – including the first launchpad on another planet,” read a tweet from the rover’s Twitter account.

As Perseverance investigates the site of an ancient lake that existed billions of years ago, it’s collecting rocks and soil. This material is of interest because it could contain evidence of past microscopic organisms that would reveal whether life ever existed on Mars.

Perseverance took its first up-close glimpse at Martian sedimentary rocks in April.

Scientists will have the chance to use some of the most sophisticated instruments around the world to study these precious samples.

A pathway of innovations

The campaign to return Martian samples to Earth will begin in the mid-2020s, when a rocket launches on a mission to Mars carrying a Sample Retrieval Lander and a fetch rover.

Once the lander arrives at Mars, it will touch down near Jezero Crater and release the fetch rover to retrieve samples from areas where Perseverance has stashed them on the Martian surface.

This illustration shows a concept for a proposed Sample Retrieval Lander and Mars Ascent Vehicle.

There is also a possibility that Perseverance itself may keep some samples aboard and deliver them to the lander.

The fetch rover isn’t the only spacecraft hitching a ride on the lander, however. It will also deliver the Mars Ascent Vehicle – the first rocket that will ever launch from the Martian surface, with the samples tucked safely inside.

A separate mission will launch from Earth in the mid-2020s, called the Earth Return Orbiter, to rendezvous with the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

Onboard the Earth Return Orbiter is the Capture/Containment and Return System, which will collect the container of samples from the Mars Ascent Vehicle while both vehicles are in orbit around Mars.

This illustration shows NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle in orbit around Mars with the samples onboard.

The Earth Return Orbiter will then head back to our world. Once the spacecraft is close to Earth, it will release the Earth Entry Vehicle that contains the cache of samples, and that spacecraft will touchdown on Earth in the early to mid-2030s.

Robotic components for the campaign are currently being tested at NASA and ESA centers.

Seeking a Martian pancake

In order to land on – and launch from – Mars, the sample return mission needs a flat surface with a 200-foot (60-meter) radius without sand dunes, angled terrain or rocks more than 7.5 inches (19 centimeters) in diameter cluttering the area. Obstacle-free, pancake-flat terrain will also make it easier for the fetch rover to retrieve the samples.

“The Perseverance team pulled out all the stops for us, because Mars Sample Return has unique needs when it comes to where we operate,” said Richard Cook, Mars Sample Return program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.

“Essentially, a dull landing place is good. The flatter and more uninspiring the vista, the better we like it, because while there are a lot of things that need to be done when we arrive to pick up the samples, sightseeing is not one of them.”

NASA's Perseverance rover used one of its navigation cameras to take this image of flat terrain in Jezero Crater. This is one possible site that NASA may consider for a Mars Sample Return lander.

The sample return team has used the rover’s cameras to survey a flat area they call the “landing strip.” The area, long and flat like a runway at an airport, was previously spotted in images taken by orbiters circling the planet. Perseverance has been able to capture a better view from the ground.

“We had been eyeing these locations since before Perseverance’s landing, but imagery from orbit can only tell you so much,” said Al Chen, Mars Sample Return systems engineering and integration manager at JPL, in a statement.

“Now we have some up-close-and-personal shots of the landing strip that indicate we were right on the money. The landing strip will more than likely make our shortlist of potential landing and caching sites for (Mars Sample Return).”