The campaign to bring pristine Mars samples to Earth will now include two mini-helicopters.
NASA officials involved in the Mars Sample Return (MSR) effort announced today (July 27) that they plan to redesign the mission, abandoning a previous concept that called for a “recovery rover ” of the European Space Agency (ESA) which would touch its own lander.
NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is expected to still be active when a NASA MSR lander lands in 2031, will now be tasked with bringing the samples it collects and caching in a Mars ascent vehicle. Failing that, however, two helicopters much like Ingenuity, which landed with Perseverance last year, will be backup options to pick up the Caches themselves.
The helicopters will be similar to Ingenuity in size and mass, but with two key differences, NASA MSR program manager Richard Cook told reporters during a briefing today.
“There will be landing legs that will include, at the bottom of them, mobility wheels,” Cook explained, saying the new capability will allow helicopters to “traverse through the surface.” A mini robotic arm on each of the contraptions will allow drones to retrieve the tube samples Perseverance leaves behind, if need be.
Related: 12 stunning photos of the Perseverance rover’s first year on Mars
If helicopters are needed for such work, they will land near a sample tube, taxi to pick it up, then fly to a location near the Mars ascent vehicle. After landing, the helicopters will taxi closer to the vehicle and drop the sample within range of a recently announced ESA-built transfer arm.
The redesign decision means that no ESA rover will land on Mars in the near future. But the new concept could also allow NASA and ESA to accomplish the ambitious sample return effort with less cost and hassle, the coalition says.
“The engineer in me was fascinated by the sampler rover because it’s designed to move much faster than previous Mars rovers, probably about four or five times faster on the surface,” director David Parker told reporters. of ESA Human and Robotic Exploration. today.
Adding the rover, however, would have involved “a second launch, a second lander and so on,” meaning removing the material from the manifesto “makes a lot of programmatic sense,” he said.
The ESA is still building a rover tasked with landing on Mars – a life-hunting robot named Rosalind Franklin. This rover was to be launched this year on a Russian rocket, but that plan fell through after Russia invaded Ukraine. Rosalind Franklin is now expected to take off in 2028 at the earliest.
“The engineering team has been working at high speed to find an alternate approach to delivering the Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars,” Parker said of the situation, saying different options are being discussed. A special meeting of the European Council in Paris in November will allow member states to decide on the best way forward, he added.
Life on Mars: Exploration and Evidence
Parts of the revised MSR plan are still under development. Officials don’t have a cost estimate yet, but suggest having a single Mars lander will be much cheaper than sending two. The helicopters also do not have a defined primary mission, although they could be tasked with observing the area around the Martian ascent vehicle or observing the rocket as it lifts off from the Red Planet, said Cook.
This new design was spurred in part by the impressive performance of other hardware that has far exceeded its lifespan on the Red Planet, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
The Curiosity rover, which inspired the design of Perseverance, will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Mars on August 5. Ingenuity was cleared for a five-flight plan in its design, but has flown 29 times to the Red Planet to date.
There has been a lot of movement on the MSR file in recent months. In May, NASA asked the public to provide feedback on an environmental assessment as the agency prepares for a draft environmental impact statement later in 2022.
The second lander requirement, now dropped, was itself not added until March after the Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board said a dual lander capability “could improve the likelihood of mission success. “, according to NASA statements at the time.
But the addition of the second lander forced the mission to push the launch date back two years to 2028, and liftoff back to Earth another two years to 2031. (Those timelines haven’t changed with the new mission plan.)
NASA also announced at the MSR press conference that the Perseverance rover is in the process of retrieving its 11th sample from the Red Planet. This sample, a fine-grained sedimentary rock, was selected because of its potential to preserve biosignatures that could be essential in helping scientists assess the chances of life on Mars.