Nasa to switch rovers for helicopters in Mars sample recovery mission
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Nasa is ditching plans to acquire Mars rock using rovers and will switch to helicopters – similar to that used during its Ingenuity mission – instead.
The Mars Sample Return Program is a proposed mission to collect rock and dust samples on Mars and return them to Earth. Such a mission, which includes contributions from the European Space Agency (ESA), would allow more extensive analysis than that allowed by onboard sensors.
While initially planning to use rovers to collect the sample, which are more comprehensively tested, the Ingenuity helicopters were tested extensively on Mars last year as part of the Perseverance mission.
As of 11 June 2022, Ingenuity has made 29 successful flights, repeatedly setting new records for highest speed and distance travelled during a single flight.
“The conceptual design phase is when every facet of a mission plan gets put under a microscope,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at Nasa Headquarters in Washington.
“There are some significant and advantageous changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance’s recent successes at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Mars helicopter.”
This advanced mission architecture takes into consideration a recently updated analysis of Perseverance’s expected longevity. Perseverance will be the primary means of transporting samples to Nasa’s Sample Retrieval Lander carrying the Mars Ascent Vehicle and ESA’s Sample Transfer Arm.
With planned launch dates for the Earth Return Orbiter and Sample Retrieval Lander in autumn 2027 and summer 2028 respectively, the samples are expected to arrive on Earth in 2033.
With its architecture solidified during this conceptual design phase, the program is expected to move into its preliminary design phase this October. In this phase, expected to last about a year, the program will complete technology development and create engineering prototypes of the major mission components.
“ESA is continuing at full speed the development of both the Earth Return Orbiter that will make the historic round-trip from Earth to Mars and back again, and the Sample Transfer Arm that will robotically place the sample tubes aboard the Orbiting Sample Container before its launch from the surface of the Red Planet,” said David Parker, ESA director of human and robotic exploration.
Since it landed at Jezero Crater in February last year, the Perseverance rover has collected 11 scientifically compelling rock core samples and one atmospheric sample.
Bringing Mars samples to Earth would allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars and would enable future generations to study them.
Curating the samples on Earth would also allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades.
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