NASA plans to bring rock samples back from Mars with the help of two space helicopters

NASA has modified the Mars Sample Return Program to bring back the rock samples that the Perseverance rover drilled and collected on a large scale from Jezero Crater. Instead of sending the Sample Fetch Rover to the Red Planet as originally planned, the program will use Perseverance itself and send two Ingenuity-based helicopters as backup.

NASA and ESA have been working together on the Sample Return Program for the last few years. The original plan was to send the ESA-made Sample Fetch Rover to retrieve the samples and drive them back to a rocket that will fly them up to be snatched up by the Earth Return Orbiter. As The New York Times notes, however, that the rover’s design became too large to the point that it could no longer fit in a Return Rocket lander. NASA would have to deploy a lander for each of them.

But why would you do that when there are other, cheaper options? The Sample Return Lander isn’t scheduled to arrive on Mars until 2030, but NASA is confident that Perseverance will still be operational by then – after all, the Curiosity rover is still operational nearly 11 years after its launch. According to their renewed plan, the Perseverance will head to the lander to deliver 30 rock samples to be loaded onto the rocket.

However, if something goes wrong with Perseverance before then, the lander would settle closer to the rover and then the backup helicopters will fly over to retrieve the samples. While the helicopters are modeled after the Ingenuity, they have small wheels at the bottom. These allow them to drive to the samples, which are sealed in tubes, and pick them up off the ground where the rover dropped them.

The Ingenuity helicopter completed its first test flight on Mars in April 2021. NASA didn’t expect much from the helicopter, which was only intended to prove that flight on Mars is possible. It was also only supposed to fly a few times during a month-long technology demonstration, but it has made 29 successful flights so far, and more are on the way. The success of Ingenuity has given NASA another opportunity to recover the valuable samples Perseverance collected.

dr Thomas Zurbuchen, Deputy Administrator for NASA’s Directorate of Science, said during the press conference announcing the new plans for the sample return program:

“We made our decision based on new studies and recent achievements at Mars that allowed us to consider options that honestly weren’t available to us a year or less ago.”

The Earth Return Orbiter and Sample Retrieval Lander will be launched in fall 2027 and summer 2028, respectively. Their journey to and from the red planet will take years, so the samples are not expected to arrive on Earth until 2033.

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