New Mars Sample Return Game Plan Offers NASA Rover Promotion, Adds 2 Backup Helicopters


To bring the first samples from Mars back to Earth, NASA and the European Space Agency have an elaborate plan involving a fleet of robots, including the Perseverance rover, a new Mars lander, a sample capture spacecraft and now, two tiny helicopters.

The two space agencies revealed on Wednesday that they had simplified the original Mars sample return campaign mission, removing a sample-retrieval rover and its associated lander. NASA and ESA officials said they changed the plan due to the expected longevity of NASA’s latest rover, Perseverance, and the success of the Ingenuity helicopter, which has now made 29 flights to Mars.

Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen said the plan was still to have two methods of getting the samples back to Earth, using Perseverance or another rover for the transfer.

“If you look at the overall risk of recovering these samples, you cannot fully rely on Perseverance. It’s frankly far from realistic or reasonable,” Zurbuchen said. “And also to bring another rover there with its own lander. The probability of this, certainly, as we know, landing on Mars is difficult. It’s not a hundred percent either.

NASA lander
NASA and the European Space Agency have announced plans to bring back samples from Mars.

Instead of an additional rover, the plan is to use two tiny helicopters as the backup option and Percy as the primary.

Perseverance has been exploring Jezero Crater, the ancient river delta of Mars, since landing in February 2021, looking for signs of life, collecting rock core samples and searching for potential landing sites for the return of samples.

Ingenuity, the 4-pound helicopter that hitched a ride with Percy on Mars, was originally a technology demonstration mission to find out if controlled flights on Mars would even be possible. The Ingenuity helicopter exceeded expectations beyond its 30-day demonstration mission and is now in a new operational phase, surveying Mars from above.

NASA rover
The plan is to have two helicopters to support the NASA Perseverance Rover.

To build on the success of the Mars flight, NASA executives said a new lander launched in 2028 will now have two sample-recovery helicopters based on the Ingenuity design. The lander will have a Mars Ascent Vehicle that will launch the Mars samples into orbit, where ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter will be waiting to pick up the samples and return them to Earth.

“Right now, based on the knowledge we have (from) a thorough analysis of Curiosity and also what we’ve learned from Perseverance, we’re much more comfortable with making Perseverance the primary venue, the primary option, to get the samples there,” Zurbuchen said. “It’s because of things we learned on Mars.”

While Percy landed on Mars over a year ago, its predecessor, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, continued to operate on the Red Planet for 10 years, giving engineers confidence that Percy will have longevity. necessary to complete his work.

NASA's Perseverance rover lands on Mars
NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars over a year ago.
NASA via Getty Images

Perseverance collected duplicate samples from Jezero Crater. It will leave a cache of deposition samples in the river delta as an ‘insurance policy’ collection option before moving on to older terrain on Mars, according to the program manager of the sample return program. NASA Mars, Richard Cook. It is possible that the deposited samples will be collected by future missions.

The rover is the primary means of delivering samples to the Sample Retrieval Lander, which will carry the Mars Ascent Vehicle and ESA’s robotic transfer arm.

ESA Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker explained that a robotic arm would also have been on the recovery rover, but that is no longer necessary. The lander arm will now pick up the samples from Percy and place them in the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

NASA and ESA changed their plans after witnessing the success of Perseverance.
NASA via Getty Images

“It’s a very sophisticated, multi-articulated robotic arm with end-effectors, designed to pick up the sample tubes from Perseverance’s carousel,” Parker said. “And now, you have understood, the possibility of recovering sample tubes deposited on the surface by one or the other of these two gripper helicopters.”

Helicopters will be used as backup to assist in the transfer of samples if necessary.

“Our overall approach in adding the helicopters…was to provide a back-up capability to what is Perseverance’s primary pathway, which we have a lot of confidence in, given that it is operating successfully,” Cook said.

When asked what the adjustments would mean for the overall cost of sample return, NASA officials said it would be lower than the original plan estimated at $7 billion, but would not speculate on a total final.

“Obviously one lander is much cheaper than two. We are still in our preliminary design phase,” said Jeff Gramling, director of NASA’s Mars sample return program.

If all the robots work as planned for the planetary transfer, the samples could land on Earth in 2033.


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