Important Update About The Mars Sample Return by NASA

Important Update About The Mars Sample Return by NASA

Plans for NASA’s upcoming Mars sample-return mission just got a boost: It will now carry a pair of twin helicopters, each to retrieve samples and deliver them to an ascent vehicle for return to Earth has the ability.

The helicopters replace the previously planned Fetch Rover, which has now been completely removed from the plan. A Fetch rover would require a second lander, while helicopters could be fitted with a landing vehicle, simplifying the mission and reducing its overall cost and complexity.

The decision was announced in a press release earlier this week, indicating that NASA had completed a system requirements review for the sample return mission.

Sample return efforts are already underway, as the Perseverance rover is actively collecting samples from scientifically important sites in Jezero Crater on Mars, and has been ongoing since early 2021.

The original plan for Persistence was to cache sample tubes for collection by the Fetch rover. At a later date, however, persistence is still going strong, and NASA expects it to last long enough to deliver the sample to the lander. Both helicopters will provide redundant delivery capabilities, should the sustainment fail.

Several recent developments made the updated plan possible. Longevity of persistence is one of them. The second is the undisputed success of Ingenuity, Perseverance’s companion helicopter, making the first powered flight to Mars in 2021.

It is now more than a year past its expected operational life, having flown 29 flights in that time. More than just a proof of concept, Ingenuity has demonstrated that powered flight vehicles can be skilled, versatile workhorses for a variety of tasks on Mars.

At a media press conference on July 27, Richard Cook, Mars Sample Return Program Manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, indicated that the new helicopters will differ from Ingenuity in two ways.

First, they would feature a set of small wheels instead of landing legs “which would allow the helicopters to fly across the surface of the ground as well… and second, each helicopter would have a short wing. which can reach down.

And… grab the sample tubes. These capabilities will only be necessary if the Persistence can’t deliver the samples itself, but their presence is a comforting insurance policy if things go south with the rover.

The helicopter, with the lander carrying the ascent stage, is expected to launch from Earth in 2028 (an orbiter built by the European Space Agency [ESA] will precede them in 2027). After the steadies and/or helicopters retrieve the samples, the ascent stage will take them into Mars orbit and rendezvous with the orbiter before returning the precious core samples to Earth in 2033.

Changes to the Mars sample return program reflect the recommendations of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, due to be released in April 2022. The survey indicated that a successful Mars sample return should be the highest scientific priority for NASA’s robotic exploration efforts this decade, but not at the expense of other missions.

Important Update About The Mars Sample Return by NASA
Important Update About The Mars Sample Return by NASA

“The cost of this should not be allowed to undermine the long-term programmatic balance of the planetary portfolio,” the survey warned. Restructuring the mission to make another rover and lander unnecessary should help keep costs manageable, while Ingenuity’s success offers strong evidence that the new plan should be viable.

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If all goes well, scientists could soon be spoiled for choice with Mars’ riches of dust and rock. Along with efforts by NASA and ESA, a Chinese sample return mission is set to return Martian soil to Earth by 2031, and a Japanese mission plans to return samples from Mars’ largest moon Phobos in 2029. keeps

While in situ geology conducted by rovers like Perseverance and its predecessor Curiosity can tell us a lot about conditions on Mars, laboratories on Earth have research tools and techniques that no rover can match. The sample return mission will allow scientists to study the minerals in more detail, revealing the Red Planet’s history and possibly its ecosystem (if it ever had one).

Funds for this project are also dwindling. Yesterday, the US Senate released a draft of its FY23 spending bill, which proposes funding NASA for next year to advance the project.