Earth is going to place a Mars meteorite back where it belongs: the Red Planet. This chunk rock, which had once been a part of Mars, will head to its home planet via a NASA rover scheduled to fly into space in 2020.
The Martian rock in question is called Sayh al Uhaymir 008 — SaU008 — discovered in Oman way back in 1999, which geologists later determined to have originated from Mars.
Why Do We Have A Martian Rock In The First Place?
How could that have happened, though? Well, scientists believe Mars colliding with other large bodies in our solar system during the early days may have caused chunks of Mars to float in space, eventually landing on Earth by chance eons later.
The aforementioned rover that will carry SaU008 back home is now being built inside NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, but more than returning to its original home, NASA is going to use the small rock as target practice for a high-precision laser on the rover's arm.
The Mars 2020 mission is an ambitious one. NASA aims to collect samples from the Red Planet's surface that astronauts could potentially send back to Earth when humans eventually fly to Mars at some point in the near future. The rover itself is incredibly sophisticated, it's worth noting: it's got a built-in tool that can scan rock features as tiny as a strand of hair.
"We're studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim," JPL's Luther Beegle said, the principal investigator for a laser tool called Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals, or SHERLOC.
As such, NASA scientists are using SaU008 to calibrate this tool, which uses forensic science methods to identify chemicals present in rock samples from Mars. Researchers will study the meteorite here to determine whether SHERLOC produces correct analyses. When the rover lands on Mars, they'll use the meteorite again to recalibrate the tool, if need be.
In addition to SaU008, the rover will also carry other materials taken from Earth, such as those that could be used to make spacesuits from, specifically for use on Mars. NASA wants to know whether these materials can withstand the conditions of the Red Planet. Much is known about Mars, sure, but it remains largely a mystery. Earth hasn't actually performed a crewed mission en route to the planet, so knowing these things will be crucial.
"[SHERLOC] gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars," said Marc Fries, SHERLOC coinvestigator.