The European Union has suspended its training missions in Mali after a military coup last week removed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita from power, according to bloc officials.
The two missions training Mali’s army and police as part of international efforts to stabilise Mali and extend the state’s authority are frozen because they were designed to support “the legitimate national authorities,” one EU official was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency on Wednesday.
Officials said the suspension was temporary and training will continue in neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
It came a day after the 88-member Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) suspended the nation from its membership.
The OIF leadership agreed on the move at an extraordinary session held via video conference, while adding that it would maintain any cooperation that would help the civilian population and a transition to democracy.
In a statement, the bloc’s Secretary General Louise Mushikiwabo called for the release of Keita and other officials detained since August 18.
Mali coup leaders, ECOWAS fail to reach agreement on transition
West African mediators and Mali’s coup leaders are discussing the possibility of a transitional government, which could allow the EU to eventually resume training in partnership with the United Nations in a country at the heart of the fight against armed groups in the Sahel region.
Drawn up in late 2012 to help Mali’s army regain control of the country after France drove out fighters in the north, the EU military mission (EUTM Mali) has more than 600 soldiers from 28 European countries including EU and non-member states.
Its headquarters in Mali’s capital, Bamako, was targeted by fighters in 2016, although no personnel were hurt.
The EU in 2014 agreed to an additional civilian mission (EUCAP Sahel Mali), sending experts to give advice and training to the internal security forces in Mali, the police, gendarmerie and national guard.
Meanwhile, an opposition coalition that had for weeks staged rallies against Keita said on Wednesday it was willing to work with the coup leaders in a process to restore civilian rule.
“We are willing to work with this process, we came here to exchange views and to reaffirm that we have the same positions” as the military, said Issa Kaou Djim, a leading figure in the June 5 Movement, after its first formal talks with the military officers who overthrew Keita.
“We have been reassured [by the fact] that these troops are soldiers, great intellectuals. Mali, across the entire spectrum, is in a drive to bring everyone together,” he said.
The next meeting is scheduled to take place on Saturday, attended by the leader of the military officers, Colonel Assimi Goita, who did not take part in Wednesday’s meeting, according to people at the talks.
Three robotic Mars missions launched from Earth last month have begun fine-tuning their trajectories through the solar system with the first in a series mid-course corrections to take aim on the Red Planet for arrival next February.
The missions launched during a period of several weeks when Earth and Mars were in the right positions in their orbits around the sun to permit a direct route between the planets. All three spacecraft are due to arrive at Mars in February 2021.
NASA said Aug. 14 that the Mars 2020 mission’s first trajectory correction maneuver, or TCM, was a success. The spacecraft fired eight thrusters to adjust its course toward Mars, beginning to shift the probe’s initial post-launch aim point on to the Red Planet.
The mission’s Atlas 5 launcher intentionally released the Mars 2020 spacecraft on a course that would miss Mars, ensuring the rocket’s upper stage would not crash into the Red Planet.
As of Wednesday, the Perseverance rover cocooned inside the Mars 2020 spacecraft’s aeroshell had logged more than 35 million miles, or 56 million kilometers, since blasting off from Florida’s Space Coast on July 30.
Mars 2020 mission planners have set aside time and propellant for five trajectory correction maneuvers to refine the spacecraft’s path toward Mars and set up the rover to target a precise landing at Jezero Crater, an impact basin that once harbored a lake of liquid water with a river flowing into it.
The nuclear-powered Perseverance rover will explore the crater, seeking signs of ancient life while collecting rock core samples for return to Earth by a future mission.
In addition to the five planned course correction burns, Mars 2020 mission managers have opportunities to command the spacecraft to perform backup or contingency maneuvers if required.
The next trajectory correction burns for Mars 2020 are scheduled for Sept. 30, Dec. 18, Feb. 10, and Feb. 16. That will set the stage for the Perseverance rover’s landing on Mars on Feb. 18.
China’s Tianwen 1 mission completed its first post-launch course correction Aug. 1 (GMT), according to the state-run Chinese Xinhua news agency.
The spacecraft fired its main engine for 20 seconds in the first of several maneuvers planned during the trip to Mars. The maneuver also served as a test of the probe’s main engine, which performed well during the burn, Chinese officials said.
Tianwen 1 launched July 23 aboard a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket. The ambitious mission will become China’s first to reach Mars, and includes an orbiter, lander and rover.
The spacecraft is scheduled to swing into orbit around Mars in February — using a lengthy engine burn — and the orbiter will survey candidate landing sites for two-to-three months before releasing the lander and rover to enter the Martian atmosphere.
If China pulls off those feats according to plan, they will make China the third country to perform a soft landing on Mars — after the Soviet Union and the United States — and the second country to drive a robotic rover on the Red Planet.
NASA has landed the only successful rovers on Mars to date.
The UAE’s Hope Mars orbiter has also successfully executed its first interplanetary course correction maneuver, mission officials announced Aug. 17.
In a tweet, officials described the event as a “major milestone” on the journey to Mars. It was the first firing of the probe’s six largest thrusters since the orbiter’s launch July 19 on top of a Japanese H-2A rocket.
Like NASA’s Mars 2020 mission and China’s Tianwen 1 spacecraft, the UAE’s Hope orbiter will arrive at Mars in February.
Funded and led by the United Arab Emirates — and developed in partnership with U.S. scientists — the Hope Mars probe carries a digital camera to image the Martian surface, dust storms and ice clouds, and spectrometers to measure constituents at multiple levels of the planet’s atmosphere.
The Hope mission is the Arab world’s first interplanetary probe.
NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will store rock and soil samples in sealed tubes on the planet’s surface for future missions to retrieve, as seen in this illustration. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The board will assist with analysis of current plans and goals for one of the most difficult missions humanity has ever undertaken.
NASA has established a Mars Sample Return Program Independent Review Board to proactively assist with analysis of current plans and goals for one of the most difficult missions humanity has ever undertaken: the return of samples from another planet to study on Earth.
When the Perseverance rover launched to Mars on July 30, it carried with it a sophisticated sampling system with drill bits, a coring arm, and sample tubes that are the cleanest hardware ever sent to space. Perseverance will collect samples from several spots on Mars for return to Earth so scientists can determine if ancient microbial life was ever present on the Red Planet. The independent review board will help NASA review the technical concept developed during preliminary formulation to date for robustness and the ability to satisfy the mission’s essential requirements. It will help ensure the agency is adopting lessons learned from its experience with previous large, strategic science missions.
“Mars Sample Return is a very high priority for the scientific community, based on the decadal survey and also of strategic importance for our Moon to Mars exploration program,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “It’s a highly complex international mission which requires focus to achieve technical, programmatic and mission success, and we want to have all the expertise available to us at this early stage to maximize mission success.”
NASA has successfully used independent reviews for early-stage strategic missions in the past to put these important science missions on the path to success. As a recent example, the 2017 independent review for the Roman Space Telescope (formerly WFIRST) helped the team make successful scope and cost trades ahead of confirmation.
This first leg in the round trip from Earth to Mars and back would take place over the course of multiple missions in partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) as well as industrial partners. The architecture for the mission in its earliest formulation involves Perseverance taking samples and leaving them on the surface of Mars for a “fetch” rover, which delivers them to an ascent vehicle that would take them to orbit, while an orbiter launched on another mission would rendezvous with the samples and take them in a highly secure containment capsule for landing back on Earth as early as 2031.
The returned samples could potentially provide astrobiological evidence needed to determine if life has ever existed on Mars. The mission itself also advances technologies for human exploration of the Red Planet, including the first launch from the surface of another planet. Strict protocols on forward and backward harmful contamination are being developed for the samples’ return.
“NASA stands up these independent boards to help the agency learn from past experiences and uncover subtle issues in space systems that may not have yet received sufficient attention,” said David Thompson, retired president of Orbital ATK, who will chair the new board. “This review will give us the chance to focus on overall mission success and to consider potential improvements that can be made early in the program to help ensure that outcome.”
Experts from various fields, including planetary protection, and NASA’s partner in the mission, ESA, will be consulted as the review process moves forward. The board is expected to meet for around eight weeks beginning in late August and to deliver a final report in the weeks after its review is complete.
NASA is about to grab its first taste of Mars. On 30 July, its Perseverance rover is set to launch to the red planet — the first step towards fulfilling a long-standing dream of planetary scientists. If everything goes to plan, Perseverance will arrive in February 2021 and drive around, collecting samples of rock that — one day — other spacecraft will pick up and fly back to Earth. The rocks will become the first samples ever returned from Mars.
They will join a priceless collection of cosmic material brought back from other planetary bodies throughout the space age. From lunar rocks gathered by the Apollo astronauts to shards of a distant asteroid collected by robot spacecraft, these samples of other worlds have reshaped scientific study of the Solar System.
Without planetary missions, the only way scientists can directly study rocks from other worlds is to analyse meteorites that have fallen to Earth. “Just waiting for [material] to arrive here on Earth would be a lot cheaper,” says Queenie Hoi Shan Chan, a planetary scientist at Royal Holloway University of London in Egham, UK. “But we cannot just wait for it to happen, because it’s really rare.”
And so space agencies go to a lot of trouble to collect fragments of the Moon, Mars, and other worlds. One advantage is that in well-equipped Earthly laboratories, researchers can apply tools and techniques to understand these samples that they can’t from a small spacecraft, Chan says. Sample-return missions also allow researchers to know the exact geological area their rock comes from. That is “priceless context,” says Jessica Barnes, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
With two asteroid-sampling missions under way, and renewed interest in the Moon, the 2020s are shaping up to be a golden age of sample return. Nature looks at the sample-return missions that have been carried out so far — and how Perseverance’s goal to bring back rocks from Mars fits into these efforts.
The first and largest collection of samples comes from the Moon. Between 1969 and 1972, a dozen astronauts on NASA’s Apollo programme flew to the Moon, walked around on it, and picked up and brought back 382 kilograms of lunar rocks (see ‘Sampling the Solar System’). Studies of those samples have rewritten scientific understanding of the history of the Solar System.
“When Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, many considered that our small moon had formed cold ,” says Donald Brownlee, an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle. “This turned out to be spectacularly wrong.” Studies of the Moon rocks showed instead that the Moon was hot at its birth, more than 4.5 billion years ago, and covered with an ocean of molten rock.
Researchers are still learning from the Apollo samples. Last year, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, NASA began to open some Apollo samples that had been sealed since they came back to Earth, to see what new science they might yield. Those studies are under way, although progressing slowly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three Soviet Luna missions, all involving robots, also brought back small amounts of Moon dust between 1970 and 1976. And China plans to retrieve some lunar samples with its upcoming Chang’e 5 mission, which could launch by the end of this year and would deliver the first lunar sample return since the 1970s.
NASA is looking to bring back many more Moon rocks as part of its Artemis programme, which aims to send astronauts back to the lunar surface by the end of 2024.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is the only space agency so far to have brought back material from an asteroid. In 2010, the Hayabusa spacecraft returned from a visit to the potato-shaped asteroid Itokawa, although it wasn’t clear whether it had managed to collect any samples during a series of mishaps at the asteroid. But when the spacecraft returned to Earth, JAXA researchers opened it and found more than 1,500 precious asteroid grains there.
“These are tiny particles that are even smaller than the diameter of a human hair,” says Chan. “On Earth we can do a great deal of detailed analysis, even with that.” That includes determining the isotopic composition of water in the Itokawa material, an analysis that isn’t possible in space because the instrument required takes up most of a room. Studies of the Itokawa grains confirmed, among other things, that the most common type of meteorite that falls to Earth, called an ordinary chondrite, comes from silicate-rich asteroids such as Itokawa1. The Itokawa particles had also been heated and shocked at some point in the past, suggesting that they had experienced cosmic collisions in the asteroid belt.
Two other asteroid samples should arrive on Earth soon, if all goes well. JAXA’s second asteroid-sampling mission, Hayabusa2, is due to land in Australia in December. It should be carrying a couple of grams of material collected from a carbon-rich asteroid called Ryugu, which lies between the orbits of Earth and Mars. And NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is currently orbiting its own asteroid, the diamond-shaped Bennu, in the hope of grabbing a sample from it in October and returning to Earth in 2023.
In 2004, NASA’s Stardust spacecraft whizzed through the tail of Comet Wild-2, six times faster than a speeding bullet, and grabbed the only samples of a comet that have ever been brought back to Earth. Those, too, turned up huge surprises.
NASA named the mission Stardust because scientists thought the comet contained ancient dust from other stars, frozen in ice for billions of years. “This idea was also spectacularly wrong,” says Brownlee, the mission’s principal investigator. When scientists got their hands on the cometary dust, they found the grains had formed close to the Sun at incandescently hot temperatures. That showed that hot materials had been transported throughout the early Solar System and somehow become incorporated into the icy body of the comet.
While flying through space, Stardust also scooped up at least seven dust particles from interstellar space. They were surprisingly different from one another, including two that contained crystalline minerals that researchers had not expected to find in the space between the stars2.
The solar wind
Despite Stardust’s success, 2004 wasn’t a great year for sample return. After spending more than two years in space collecting some of the charged particles that stream from the Sun and make up the solar wind, NASA’s Genesis spacecraft crashed into the Utah desert. As it flew back to Earth, its parachute failed to deploy when re-entering the atmosphere, and the spacecraft plummeted into the ground at 300 kilometres per hour, breaking apart.
But engineers salvaged much of the canister containing the precious solar-wind samples. Researchers have used them to make discoveries, including that the solar wind — and thus the Sun — has a higher proportion of the main oxygen isotope than has Earth, contrary to what scientists had expected3.
Returning samples from Mars is a bigger challenge than any other mission so far. Mars is farther away than the Moon and has more gravity than a comet or an asteroid, making it harder to escape the surface and get back to Earth.
NASA wants Perseverance to drill and store at least 30 tubes of Martian rock and soil at its landing site in Jezero Crater. Long-term plans call for NASA and the European Space Agency to collaborate to send a second rover to collect those tubes and launch them into Martian orbit, and a third spacecraft to fetch them from Martian orbit and fly them back to Earth. The aim is for the samples to reach Earth in 2031.
But Japan might well achieve the first sample return from Mars — sort of. JAXA is developing a spacecraft that would fly to Mars’ biggest moon, Phobos, and scoop up some dust there and fly it back to Earth as early as 2029. The mission is called Martian Moons eXploration, or MMX.
MMX would mark the first material from the Mars system ever brought back to Earth. A paper last year4 reported that the surface of Phobos probably contains many particles from Mars, kicked off the surface by meteorite impacts and stuck onto Phobos. If so, then MMX might be able to pick up more than 100 grains on Phobos that originally came from Mars.
Each of those grains could contain minerals that yield information about the material’s age, as well as its magnetic and chemical properties, say Tomohiro Usui and Ryuki Hyodo of JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Sagamihara. “Each grain has geochemical information about the Martian surface environment from the time that grain was formed.” By analysing as many Mars grains as possible, researchers can build up a picture of how the Martian surface environment changed over time.
And by working first with Mars samples in the lab, the MMX team can help prepare NASA and ESA for what lies ahead with Perseverance.