NASA announced Wednesday that it has made major changes to its plan to return samples from the Martian surface in the early 2030s. Samples are currently being collected by the rover, and samples are scheduled to be transported back to Earth by relay from rover vehicles and rockets. Now, inspired by the success of the Ingenuity helicopter, NASA says it could lose one of the rovers, and replace it with two helicopters instead.
The plan to return a Mars sample includes a plethora of challenges, but one central challenge is that the samples are currently in perseverance, but eventually have to end up in a rocket blasting off from the surface of Mars. This means that perseverance will have to get close enough to the rocket’s landing site – which we can’t choose precisely – to exchange samples, and possibly divert them away from scientific targets. Nor can it be too close when the missile lands since the missile lands and associated devices can pose a risk to the rover and its samples.
The original plan included an emergency. The tenacity will approach after the rocket has landed, and the samples will be transported directly. If that doesn’t work for whatever reason, the second rover that the European Space Agency is sending to Mars will act as a medium, visiting a site where samples have been cached, retrieved, and then delivered to the rocket.
In the new plan, the second rover was eliminated. in its place? Two helicopters. These will be delivered as part of the same payload as the rocket carrying the samples into orbit. As a result, the new plan includes only one landing craft (other than the one that provided persistence) that will carry both the missile and the helicopters, greatly reducing the risks of the overall plan.
These helicopters will, of course, be based on the Ingenuity design, which was sent to Mars as a test vehicle and vastly exceeded expectations, completing 29 flights over the course of a year. Given this experience, NASA is confident that the helicopters can be designed to carry small payloads and potentially complete multiple flights between the return rocket and wherever the samples are – either on perseverance or in a temporary storage location.
After that, the plan remains the same. The samples will be loaded into a container placed on the NASA-designed Mars Ascent Rover and carried into orbit. There, the container will be transported to the Earth Return Orbiter, built by the European Space Agency, which will bring it back to Earth in 2033, at which point it will drop through the atmosphere for recovery and study.
The next step will be ESA approval, after which both agencies will begin the initial design phase, which will deal with all the details of the different vehicles that will be required. Meanwhile, Perseverance has already collected dozens of samples from the surface of the Red Planet.
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