NASA plans to bring rock samples back from Mars using two space helicopters

NASA has changed the Mars sample return program intended to bring back the rock samples that the Perseverance rover drilled and collected in Jezero Crater in a big way. Instead of sending the Sample Fetch Rover to the Red Planet as originally planned, the program will use Perseverance itself and send more than two Ingenuity-based helicopters for backup.

NASA and ESA have worked together on the sample return program for the past few years. The original plan was to send the ESA-made Sample Fetch Rover to collect the samples and bring them back to a rocket, which will fly them to be picked up by the Earth Return Orbiter. As The New York Times notes, however, that the rover’s design grew too large until it could no longer fit in a lander with the return rocket. NASA should use a lander for each of them.

But why do this when there are other more affordable options? The sample return lander isn’t expected 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 almost 11 years after its launch. As part of their renewed plan, the Perseverance will travel to the lander to deliver 30 rock samples which will be loaded onto the rocket.

If something goes wrong with Perseverance before then, the lander will settle closer to the rover and then the rescue helicopters will fly over to collect the samples. Although the helicopters are inspired by the Ingenuity, they will have small wheels at the bottom. These will allow them to travel to the samples that are sealed inside the tubes and pick them up from the ground where the rover dropped them off.

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

Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Branch, said at the press conference announcing the new plans for the sample return program:

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

The Earth Return Orbiter and Sample Recovery Lander will lift off 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. before 2033.

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