The campaign to bring samples from Mars to Earth will now include two small 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 the European Space Agency (ESA) to “bring the craft” that would touch down the special lander.
NASA’s Persevering Rover is expected to remain active when NASA’s MSR lands in 2031, and will now be tasked with bringing the samples it collects and storing in the Mars Ascent Rover. Failing that, however, two helicopters very similar to the Ingenuity, which landed with persistence last year, would be backup options for capturing the bunkers themselves.
The helicopters will be similar in prowess in size and mass, but with two major differences, Richard Cook, NASA MSR program manager, told reporters during today’s briefing.
“There will be landing legs comprising movable wheels at the bottom,” Cook explained, noting that this new capability will allow helicopters to “pass across the surface.” A small robotic arm on each vehicle will allow the drones to pick up samples of tubes that perseverance leaves behind, if necessary.
Related: 12 amazing photos from the first year of the Perseverance rover on Mars
If helicopters were needed for such work, they would land near the sample tube, roll over to pick it up, and then fly to somewhere near the MAV. After landing, the helicopters will approach the vehicle and drop the sample within reach of the newly announced ESA transport arm.
The redesign decision means that no European Space Agency spacecraft will land on Mars in the near future. But the new concept may also allow NASA and the European Space Agency to accomplish an ambitious sample return effort at lower cost and complexity, according to the consortium.
“The engineer in me was intrigued by the rover’s sample, because it is designed to travel much faster than previous Mars rovers, perhaps about four or five times the speed at the surface,” David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, told reporters. today.
Adding the rover, however, might entail “a second launch, a second landing and so on,” meaning that removing the device from the manifest “has a lot of programmatic meaning,” he said.
The European Space Agency is still building a rover to land on Mars – a life-hunting robot named Rosalind Franklin. This year, this rover was supposed to be launched on a Russian missile, but this plan failed after Russia invaded Ukraine. Rosalind Franklin is now expected to launch no later than 2028.
“The engineering team has been working very quickly to find an alternative way to deliver the Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars,” Parker said of the situation, noting that various options are under discussion. He added that a special meeting of the European Council in Paris in November would allow member states to determine the best path forward.
Life on Mars: Exploration and Evidence
Parts of the revised MSR plan are still in preparation. Officials don’t have any cost estimate yet, but they suggest that having just one lander to go to Mars would be much less expensive than sending two. The helicopters do not have a specific initial mission, Cook said, although they may be tasked with monitoring the area around the MAV or monitoring the rocket as it takes off from the Red Planet.
This new design has been driven in part by the impressive performance of other instruments that have significantly exceeded their lifespan on the Red Planet, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
Guided by persistence determination, the Curiosity rover will celebrate 10 years on Mars on August 5th. Ingenuity has been vacated for a five-flight plan in its design but it has flown 29 times to the Red Planet so far.
There has been a lot of movement on the MSR file in recent months. In May, NASA asked the public to provide comments on the environmental assessment as the agency prepares for a draft environmental impact statement later in 2022.
The second landing requirement, now rescinded, was only added in March after the Independent Review Board of the Mars sample return said the double landing capability “may improve the mission’s probability of success,” according to NASA data at the time.
But the addition of a second lander forced the mission to postpone the launch date two years to 2028, and return the lift-off to Earth by another two years until 2031 (these schedules have not changed with the new mission plan).
NASA also announced during the MSR press conference that the rover is in the middle of capturing its eleventh sample on the red planet. This sample, a fine-grained sedimentary rock, was chosen because of its ability to preserve vital fingerprints that may be key to helping scientists assess the chances of life on Mars.
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