As the new space race ramps up, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency announced a pivotal step in the hunt for evidence of life on Mars, which, if executed, means Japan could attain Martian soil samples and have the opportunity to study those samples for signs of life years before the U.S. and China.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency said on Thursday it would launch a robot explorer in 2024 to collect soil samples from Phobos, one of Mars’ moons, and bring the samples back to Earth by 2029, the AP reported.
The U.S. and China both announced similar missions last year (although they plan to collect samples from the planet itself rather than a moon), but don’t plan to have the samples returned until at least 2031 and 2030 respectively.
Japan plans to collect soil from a moon rather than Mars itself because scientists believe it will provide a variety of samples from the planet spread by sandstorms.
They believe these soil samples will provide vital clues about evidence of life on Mars.
So far all successful missions to Mars have been rovers, but a number of countries including the U.S. and China have explored plans to send humans to the planet.
In July 2020, NASA launched the Perseverance rover, which landed on the Jezero Crater on Mars in February of this year. Its goal is to look for potential signs of life on Mars and to collect soil and rock samples. Although it failed to collect samples in its first attempt this month, it will continue trying. China’s Zhurong rover landed on Mars in May 2021. During its first 90 days on the planet, the Zhurong rover traveled nearly 889 meters across the planet, surveying the planet and looking for evidence of life. So far, only the U.S. and China have successfully landed rovers on Mars. Japan’s new mission wouldn’t change that, since it aims to travel to Mars’ moon rather than the surface of the planet. However, it’s quicker timeline means its soil samples would arrive on Earth years before the U.S. or China’s, giving scientists an opportunity to study them here for signs of potential life. It’s not immediately clear what other plans Japan has for its explorer during the five year mission, but it will likely spend that time collecting data and seeking other evidence of life on the planet.
300 million. That’s how many miles away from Earth Mars is. According to NASA, the trip for the rover to get to Mars takes about seven months.
In addition to Phobos, Mars has one other moon: Deimos. The moons are named after the horses that pulled the chariot of the Greek god of war, Ares, although the planet is named after his Roman name, Mars. Phobos and Deimos names translate to mean “fear” and “panic.”