This is a really cool idea: instead of landing on Mars, why not just have a spacecraft skim the Red Planet’s atmosphere for dust, and return home with those samples? That way mission designers don’t have to worry about landing complexities and the added weight of a lander. And if a lander collected samples of Mars’ soil, then people have to design a way to get the samples home (or study them remotely).
That’s the whole idea behind the SCIM (Sample Collection to Investigate Mars) mission: get samples from Mars, but do it simply. This Space.com post has a great overview of SCIM. You could also go to BoldlyGo Institute’s website to see more detail in what they wish to do.
SCIM won’t orbit Mars, but quickly pass through Mars’ atmosphere at an altitude of 37-40 km above Mars’ surface. BoldlyGo calls this an “aeropass.” And they’re trying to time that pass with Mar’s seasonal dust storms, so there should be a lot of particles in Mar’s atmosphere for SCIM to collect. If you look at the picture above, the pointy end of SCIM will lead the spacecraft through the atmosphere, while vents or openings near the rear of the spacecraft collect the samples.
The samples will embed themselves into an aerogel-based collection grid within SCIM. After that one pass, BoldlyGo seems confident they will have collected quite a few samples and SCIM starts on its route to return to Earth.
BoldlyGo seem to thing that if they can launch SCIM as soon as 2018, that the spacecraft will be back with the goods by 2020. This would be a fairly short mission, considering. But if it works, it will hopefully yield some interesting results. There is a video below (all music, no voice narrative) showing the whole mission profile.