NASA will send more helicopters to Mars

The first helicopter NASA sent to Mars performed so well that it is sending two more.

The helicopters are similar to Ingenuity, the “Marscopter” that accompanied NASA’s Perseverance rover to Mars. But they will have the added ability of being able to grab and carry small tubes filled with pieces of Martian rock. (Think of them as alien drones, similar in concept to those Amazon has developed to deliver packages.)

It’s part of a major shakeup of NASA’s next big mission to Mars, a collaboration with the European Space Agency to bring Martian rocks back to Earth for in-depth examination by scientists using state-of-the-art lab equipment that won’t can’t fit in a spaceship. .

“We have a way forward using a revised and innovative architecture,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s science branch, said at a press conference Wednesday that provided an update on the mission. known as the Mars Sample Return.

The Perseverance rover drilled rock samples while exploring a crater named Jezero. It focuses on a dry river delta along the crater rim, a prime location where signs of ancient life could be preserved if organisms ever lived there.

The original plan was to send an ESA-built rover to pick up the samples and bring them back to the lander, where they would be loaded onto a rocket and launched into Mars orbit. Another spacecraft would grab the container with the rocks and take them to Earth. But the rover design was getting bigger and, with that rocket, getting too heavy to fit on a lander. Earlier this year, NASA announced it would be using two landers – one for the rover and one for the return rocket.

The mission revamp eliminates the fetch rover. Instead, the plan is for Perseverance to travel to the lander, where 30 rock samples would be loaded onto the return rocket. As Curiosity, a rover nearly identical in design to Perseverance, continues to operate on Mars a decade after its arrival, NASA officials are confident that Perseverance will still be in working order when the Mars Sample Return lander arrives. in 2030.

Helicopters would be a back-up option if something goes wrong with Perseverance. The sample return lander would set up near where Perseverance had dropped the rock samples on the ground, sealed in cigar-sized tubes. Helicopters would then fly the samples back to the lander.

The journey back to Earth would take another few years, landing in a small capsule in 2033.

NASA officials were surprised by the continued accomplishments of Ingenuity, transported to Mars under Perseverance. Originally, the helicopter was to fly several times during a month-long technology demonstration shortly after the mission landed on Mars in February 2021, then Perseverance would leave Ingenuity behind and continue its primary science mission. Ingenuity has now flown 29 times.

But the flights of the Ingenuity – a difficult technological challenge in the wispy air of Mars – were so successful that NASA decided to have the helicopter continue to follow Perseverance, serving as an aerial scout of the landscape. coming.

“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,” Dr Zurbuchen said. .

The helicopters for the sample return mission would be roughly the same size, but with the addition of small wheels at the bottom of the landing legs. This would allow each of the helicopters to travel a short distance to overlap a sample tube; then a small robotic arm would pick up the tube.

With the recovery rover eliminated, the Mars Sample Return mission only requires one lander, not two. This simplifies mission design – each landing on Mars adds risk – and helps reduce costs.

The total cost of the mission will be several billion dollars, but NASA would not speculate on the amount. “All I can say right now is the obvious,” said Jeff Gramling, Mars Sample Return program director at NASA. “One lander certainly costs a lot less than two.”

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