Washington– NASA has awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Space to build rockets to help retrieve samples from Mars.

The Colorado-based company will build the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a small, lightweight rocket to launch rock, sediment, and atmospheric samples from the surface of the Red Planet.

“This groundbreaking endeavour is destined to inspire the world when the first robotic round-trip mission retrieves a sample from another planet — a significant step that will ultimately help send the first astronauts to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, in a statement.

Mars Perseverance rover, which landed in February last year on the Red planet, in September collected rock samples.

The samples, collected by Perseverance during its exploration of an ancient river delta, are thought to present the best opportunity to reveal the early evolution of Mars, including the potential for life.

MAV will be carried to Mars’s surface aboard NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander.

It is planned for launch no earlier than 2026 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It will land near or in Jezero Crater to gather the samples cached by Perseverance, the US space agency said.

The samples would be returned to the lander, which would serve as the launch platform for the MAV. With the sample container secured, the MAV would then launch.

Once it reaches Mars orbit, the container would be captured by an ESA (European Space Agency) Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft outfitted with NASA’s Capture, Containment, and Return System payload.

The spacecraft would bring the samples to Earth safely and securely in the early- to mid-2030s.

“We are nearing the end of the conceptual phase for this Mars Sample Return mission, and the pieces are coming together to bring home the first samples from another planet. Once on Earth, they can be studied by state-of-the-art tools too complex to transport into space,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Returning a sample is complicated, and MAV faces some complex development challenges.

It must be robust enough to withstand the harsh Mars environment and adaptable enough to work with multiple spacecraft.

It also must be small enough to fit inside the Sample Retrieval Lander.

The Mars Sample Return Campaign promises to revolutionise understanding of Mars by bringing scientifically selected samples for study using the most sophisticated instruments around the world.

This strategic NASA and ESA partnership would be the first mission to return samples from another planet and the first launch from the surface of another planet. (IANS)