Sample Collection to Investigate Mars: Full Mission Brief

SCIM will return the first samples of Martian materials to Earth without the complexity and risk of landing, and at a fraction of the cost. As the first round trip mission to Mars, SCIM will break new ground, and set the stage for future visits to Mars by humans.


Why This Mission?

SCIM will fundamentally advance our knowledge of the geology, climate, and habitability of Mars; a terrestrial planet that may have been similar to Earth in its early history. It will also help us to prepare for future human exploration by providing detailed, particle-by-particle analysis of the ubiquitous Martian dust -- and its possible hazards to human explorers, their habitat, and equipment.

Mars is the one planet most like Earth that we can imagine life as we know it possibly taking hold there. By studying Mars, we can learn about our place in the solar system, our place in the cosmos, and perhaps learn about how life first evolved in ways that are very difficult to do anywhere else.
— Dr. Steven Squyres, James A. Weeks Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University; SCIM Science Team

Our Expert Team

The SCIM Team members combine world-renowned scientific expertise with deep mission development and management experience including senior executive positions at NASA and leading roles in previous sample return missions like Stardust and Genesis as well as Mars missions.


Meenakshi Wadhwa

Arizona State University


Laurie Leshin

Worcester Polytechnic Institute


Steve Ruff

ASU - SCIM Mission Scientist


Amy Jurewicz

Arizona State University


Ben Clark

Space Science Institute


Steve Jones

Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Scott McLennan

Stony Brook University (SUNY)


Michael Mischna

Jet Propulsion Laboratory


Steve Squyres

Cornell University


Andrew Westphal



Jon Morse

BoldlyGo Institute


Nick Smith

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Program Management & Mission Development Lead


Mission Development

Phase 1: Detailed Design & Mission Optimization

SCIM is a mature mission concept and ready to go. We are currently fundraising to begin implementation. Our first phase entails detailed design and optimization work, with a special focus on the dust collector and sample return capsule.

In the early phase of SCIM development, work will focus on:

  1. Optimizing the science plan using the latest data from Mars

  2. Incorporating the most advanced flight avionics

  3. Creating a detailed build plan and schedule to get us to the launch pad

  4. Inking initial agreements with our SCIM partners including aerospace companies, our launch vehicle provider, universities and NASA

  5. Updating mission costs using our revised management approach.

Sampling Mars

With a baseline launch opportunity in late 2022, SCIM performs a daring high-speed atmospheric pass down to below 40 km altitude timed to coincide with seasonal Martian dust storms, collecting thousands of Martian dust particles from the atmosphere. After the sample collection pass at Mars, the spacecraft returns directly to Earth, where its precious, sterilized samples descend by parachute to the ground.

2024 Mission Profile (Tentative)

Launch 9/18/2024

Mars Flyby 10/8/2025, Ls=152

  • Periapsis Altitude=40 km

  • Periapsis Velocity= 5.65 km/s

  • Periapsis Latitude= -47 degrees

  • LTST at Periapsis ~ 1:20 PM

Nominal DSM DV = 0 m/s

Earth Return 6/16/2027

  • Earth Entry V = 11.4 km/s

The Science & Technology

Advancing Our Understanding of Mars with Unique Data

As the first sample return from another terrestrial planet, SCIM will provide a unique data set and a comparative basis for understanding how the rocky inner planets formed and why they have evolved so differently from each other.

Science Objectives for SCIM Mission

  1. Quantitatively characterize the chemical, isotopic, and mineralogical composition of Martian crustal materials as represented by the global dust

  2. Investigate aqueous alteration processes and environments that have affected or produced Martian surface materials

  3. Understand Mars’ volatile reservoirs and hydrologic cycles

  4. Synthesize data from remote-sensing and Earth-based laboratory investigations of Martian materials to provide “ground truth” for past and future missions

Dust Collector and Sample Return Capsule

Early hardware builds will help SCIM make key progress towards the launch pad. We propose early prototypes and ultimately early flight builds of both the aerogel-based dust collector and the sample return capsule that will bring the Mars dust safely back to Earth.

Both of these key elements of SCIM provide naming opportunities for donors.

Fine Particle Studies Only Possible in Earth-based Labs

Fine particles, in particular, can record many interesting and varied processes on Mars, from aqueous transport to volcanic eruptions. By studying the fine particles in atomic-level detail only possible in labs on Earth, we will provide never-before seen insights into the most important processes that have shaped Mars. These insights will also help engineers design more robust mechanisms, habitats and space suits in future robotic and crewed missions to the surface of Mars.


Slicing Dust Particles Using Nanotechnology

SCIM leverages the very latest in nano-science and technology available here on Earth. Scientists in terrestrial labs have the ability to slice a single microscopic dust particle into numerous pieces that can be shipped around the globe for analyses in the most advanced labs on Earth.


Advantages of Sample Return Mission

  • High Science Return

    • Material origin and processing are recorded at microscopic, molecular, and atomic levels—scales readily accessible only by Earth-based lab instruments

    • Important scientific discoveries can be rapidly confirmed by new measurements with additional instruments

    • Curated samples are available when new hypotheses arise and call for new measurements

  • Advanced Instrumentation

    • The very best instruments are used for samples analysis: no limitation on what can be “flight qualified” by the time of launch

    • No time limits: As more advanced instruments are developed, they can be used on the curated sample

  • Participation

    • Hundreds of scientists and students can participate directly in the mission by making measurements in their own labs—literally dozens of highly sophisticated instruments worldwide will be used

    • Many scientists not currently part of the traditional “Mars science community” will be involved—these scientists will provide valuable new perspectives and ideas

    • Millions of Mars enthusiasts will have access to SCIM mission imagery and science results, and we will enlist citizen scientists to help identify dust tracks in the aerogel, as well as participate in other aspects of the scientific analysis

  • Replication

    • Important results can be verified independently using the same method in another lab or by using a complementary technique

    • Experimental anomalies can be directly resolved

Aeropass & Aeroshell Instrumentation

Using a sleek, elongated aeroshell, SCIM will race through the Martian atmosphere collecting samples, but won’t be captured into orbit. Instead, after emerging from the atmospheric pass SCIM will return directly to Earth with its treasure. The cone-shaped aeroshell is similar to geometries of planned Mars human landing systems, and instrumenting the aeroshell with sensors will provide critical pathfinder data for future human explorers.

SCIM’s sample capture is based on the successful collection system for the Stardust mission (shown above), using cells filled with ultra-light aerogel to capture and preserve the dust particles. Aerogel is both strong and heat resistant and provides perfect protection for SCIM’s Martian cargo.

Stardust Aerogel Collector

Stardust Aerogel Collector

Captured particles are slowed in the aerogel and come to rest at the tip of a carrot-shaped track, with the track pointing the way. In this image from a test, the particle is at the upper right.

Aerogel Particle

Aerogel Particle

Heating levels on the aeroshell are estimated with cutting edge computational models, and anchored to reality through wind tunnel testing. These images show the results of such tests (left) and calculations (right). As expected, heating levels near the aeroshell nose are highest, while the rear of the spacecraft stays much cooler.

Aeroshell Windtunnel

Aeroshell Windtunnel

Extensive modeling and experiments by the SCIM team have shown that small particles easily traverse the atmospheric shock wave and reach the collection system, which is located near the rear of the spacecraft where temperatures are relatively cool. The design of the collection system will result in minimal heating of the dust particles during the capture process in order to maximize science return.

Aeroshell Shockwave

Aeroshell Shockwave

Tested and Ready

Testing on Earth and high end computational models have guided SCIM’s design to ensure that particles will reach our aerogel collectors and that heating levels are low to ensure the sampling system and particles preserve the best science.

The flight system design is mature, and NASA experts have previously deemed development plans low risk.

The system development is amenable to streamlined management because it’s fundamentally based on technical factors that can be controlled rather than risk factors that need to be managed. The technology of SCIM is also proven. So we’re in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, mode of development.
— Steve Battel, Battel Engineering; BoldlyGo Institute Board of Directors

Educational Opportunities to Join SCIM

We are building plans for education programs to engage people around the world in the SCIM journey, including a student-built experiment and hosting secondary payloads such as cubesats.
Help us blaze the trail to Mars (and back!)

Student-built Experiment and Secondary Payloads

Education and public engagement are important to the SCIM journey. Enabling meaningful participation through hands-on activities—such as creating SCIM’s dust counter and possibly cubesats to be released at Mars—will have a positive impact on preparing future generations for careers in technological fields. Near-term work involved detailed accommodation studies to maximize the number of student experiments SCIM can carry. It will also support initial competitions and designs of SCIM’s student experiments.