NASA has modified the Mars Sample Return Program to bring back the rock samples the Perseverance rover has drilled and collected from 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 over two helicopters based on Ingenuity for backup.
NASA and ESA have worked together on the Sample Return Program in recent years. The original plan was to send over the ESA-made Sample Fetch Rover to retrieve the samples and run them back to a rocket, which will fly them up to be intercepted by the Earth Return Orbiter. As New York Times however, notes that the rover’s design became too large to fit into a lander with the return rocket. NASA had to use one lander for each of them.
But why do that when there are other, less expensive options? The Sample Return Lander isn’t scheduled to arrive on Mars until 2030, but NASA is confident Perseverance will still be operational by then — after all, the Curiosity rover is still up and running nearly 11 years after it was launched. Under their revamped plan, Perseverance will drive up to the lander to deliver 30 rock samples to be loaded onto the rocket.
If something goes wrong with Perseverance before then, however, the lander will move closer to the rover, and then the backup helicopters will fly over to retrieve the samples. While the helicopters are modeled after the ingenuity, they will have small wheels on the bottom. These will allow them to drive up to the samples sealed in the tubes and pick them up from the ground where the rover has dropped them.
The Ingenuity helicopter completed its first test flight on Mars in April 2021. NASA did not expect much from the helicopter, which was only supposed to prove that flying on Mars is possible. It was also only supposed to fly a handful of times during a one-month technology demonstration, but it has achieved 29 successful flights so far, with more on the way. The invention’s success has given NASA another way to retrieve the precious samples Perseverance has collected.
Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Directorate, said during the news conference announcing the new plans for the Sample Return Program:
“We came to our decision based on new studies and recent achievements on Mars that allowed us to consider options that, frankly, were not available to us a year ago or earlier.”
The Earth Return Orbiter and Sample Retrieval Lander will take off in fall 2027 and summer 2028, respectively. Their journey to and from the Red Planet will take years, so the samples aren’t expected to arrive on Earth until 2033.
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