From Mars to the Museum, and back again
A piece of a Martian meteorite from the Museum's collection will be returned to the red planet as part of the ground-breaking NASA Mars 2020 rover mission
A meteorite that fell to Earth from Mars and was discovered in Oman in 1999 will soon be returned to its home planet. The sample, referred to as Sayh al Uhamiyr 008 or SaU 008, has been under the care of the Natural History Museum since 2000. Prof Caroline Smith, Head of Earth Sciences Collections at the Museum, Principal Curator of Meteorites, and member of the Mars 2020 Science Team says ‘Every year, we provide hundreds of meteorite specimens to scientists all over the world to study. But this is a first for us: sending one of our samples approximately 100 million km away back home, to further our knowledge of Mars.’
The Mars 2020 mission is monumental for planetary exploration. A part of NASA’s long-term campaign of robotic exploration on Mars, its primary aim is to seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and regolith samples for possible return to Earth. To achieve this, Perseverance, the Mars 2020 rover, will use a combined high-precision laser, camera and spectrometer instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals), to illuminate rock features as fine as a human hair and decipher the composition of the sample.
However, this level of precision cannot be left to chance. A slight change in temperature, or moving sands beneath the rover, can lead to misalignments. Experts at the Museum have been helping NASA prepare for this by allowing access to their world-leading meteorite collection.
The SaU 008 sample will be one of the first Martian meteorites to ever return to the planet's surface. Once Perseverance has landed at Mars’ Jezero Crater in February 2021, the meteorite will be used as a testing material by SHERLOC to ensure accuracy and precision before the instrument goes on to investigate unknown samples. Prof Caroline Smith explains, ‘When you start work for the day, you need to measure materials you know very well and that you know the composition of. This allows you to be confident that the instrument is working properly before you start working with new samples.’
After a robust selection process, the SHERLOC instrument designers chose SaU 008 as one of their calibration materials. To minimise the margin of error, it is useful for the calibration materials to be as similar to the samples being tested as is possible. With this in mind, Prof Smith suggested using a Martian meteorite made of basalt, a material that is ubiquitous on Mars. Prof Smith recalls, ‘The piece that we are sending was specifically chosen because it is the right material in terms of chemistry, but also it is a very tough rock. Some of the Martian meteorites we have are very fragile. This meteorite is as tough as old boots. In addition, studying this sample over the course of the mission will help us to understand the chemical interactions between the Martian surface, and its atmosphere.’
Overall, SHERLOC's calibration target includes 10 objects, including SaU 008. SuperCam, another instrument aboard Perseverance, also has a piece of Martian meteorite on its calibration target, which will serve the same purpose to SuperCam as SaU 008 does to SHERLOC.
As well as taking samples, there is hope that the rover will be the first element of a joint NASA and European Space Agency campaign for a Mars sample return, meaning that the samples collected by Perseverance could one day return to Earth for further research. Mars 2020 also seeks to find signs of past life; when Perseverance arrives on the red planet, it will land at the Jezero Crater, a site pinpointed for potentially being a past habitable environment. As well as this, it will gather information into the possibility of future human life on Mars. Perseverance carries technology that will pave the way for human missions to Mars, including an experiment to generate oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere.
Ahead of the launch on July 30, 2020, Prof Caroline Smith concludes, ‘As an innovative global science leader, we’re thrilled that the Museum is able to open up its world-class collection - in this instance a meteorite that was blasted off Mars between 600 and 700 thousand years ago - and become an integral part of the Mars 2020 mission, a monumental journey of space exploration, pushing the boundaries of science in a truly international endeavour.’
Notes for editors
About the Natural History Museum:
The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.
It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.
The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.
The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.