NASA will send more helicopters to Mars and this time they will have wheels

Concept image of the equipment to be used for the Mars Sample Return Mission: an Ingenuity-class helicopter (check out its cute wheels), the Perseverance rover, the Earth Return Orbiter, the Sample Retrieval Lander, and the ascent vehicle.

Concept image of equipment to be used for the Mars Sample Return Mission: An Ingenuity-class helicopter (check out its cute wheels), the Perseverance rover, the Earth Return Orbiter, the Sample Retrieval Lander, and the ascent vehicle.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA press conferences are almost always interesting, but this week’s media event it was really amazing. Instead of using a proposed rover search for samples to collect surface samples left behind by the rover Perseverance of NASA, the space agency intends to send two class helicopters Ingenuity to Jezero Crater on Mars, where they will fly to the sample tubes, pick them up and take themnorth to a lander that will wait fence.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are still in the conceptual design phase of the Mars Sample Return Program, so changes are expected. But the changes announced at this conference they were quite big. The two space agencies have completed their systems requirements review for the upcoming mission, removing some elements and adding others.

THomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, compared the Mars sample return mission to the Webb Space Telescope, describing them as international missions with historic implications. In fact, bringing samples from the Martian surface to Earth for analysis would be huge, both in terms of the resulting science and the experience we would gain from such an effort. In addition to learning more about the geology of the Red Planet, the samples could yield evidence of ancient martian life And as David Parker, Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA, told reporters, the return mission would make it possible to date the absolute age of the Martian samples, which is currently not possible. Furthermore, this effort it would serve as a “precursor mission” for a manned expedition to the Red Planet, Parker added.

Same as him Webb, the Mars Sample Return mission it is immensely complex; never tried nothing like this. Technically, this mission is already underway. Perseverance is currently collecting and storing surface samples in Jezero Crater, placing small pieces of rock in small tubes that are placed on the carousel aboard the rover or dropped onto the Martian surface. To date, Perseverance has collected and sealed 10 tubes filled with rock samples, and an 11th tube is in the process of being stored. NASA and ESA are deciding the best way to collect these tubes and return them safely to Earth.

The recently announced revision of the mission architecture is not subtle. Still includes the Sample Retrieval Lander (Sample Retrieval Module) of NASA, which will carry the Mars Ascent Vehicle (ascent vehicle) and the Earth Return Orbiter (orbiter back to Earth)which will be equipped with NASA’s capture, containment and return system. These items remain, but NASA and ESA have canceled plans to send the speedy Sample Fetch Rover. and its associated landing pad.

The reason for the change, according to Zurbuchen, has to do with the “excellent performance” of Perseverance and NASA’s other functional Mars rover, Curiosity, which has been working on Mars for nearly 10 years. The risk analysis of the sample return mission “has been affected by the experience of the last year,” she said. NASA now has good reason to believe that Perseverance will still be active in the early 2030s, when the collection phase of the mission begins. This wasn’t always clear, Zurbuchen explained, hence the perceived need for a dedicated sample search rover. Completely trust the Perseverance it was far from reasonable or realistic, he said. With this added confidence, and with Perseverance in good shape, NASA and ESA decided to scrap the sampler rover.which now features Perseverance as the primary option for carrying samples to NASA’s sample recovery lander. Zurbuchen said NASA planners “always wanted Perseverance to be involved in the recovery portion of the mission” and that the revised strategy is not a “substantial change” but rather “more of an evolution.”

NASA and ESA had I consider previously launched the search rover and ascent vehicle on two different rockets to reduce risk, but that won’t be necessary, given the cancellation of the search rover.

ESA is currently developing the sample transfer arm that will remove the tubes from Perseverance’s carousel and gently place them onto the Mars Ascent Vehicle (the rocket that will carry the samples to the orbiter). Speaking to reporters, Parker said the multi-jointed sample arm, which measures 2.5 meters when fully extended, “it has always been part of the mission architecture.”

NASA also wants to send two Ingenuity-class helicopters to serve as a backup contingency, in case something goes wrong with Perseverance. To date, the helicopter Ingenuitywhich landed on Mars with Perseverance in February 2021, has made 24 more flights than originally planned, Jeff Gramling, director of the Mars Sample Return Program, explained to the press. “This showed us the usefulness of helicopters on Mars,” he said.

The two helicopters that will be used for the sample return mission will not be identical to Ingenuity, as they will be slightly heavier and feature mobility wheels instead of feet. The small wheels will allow the helicopters to roll around the martian surface. In addition, each helicopter will have an arm to grab tubes from the surface. when it fills upn with sample material, the tubes will not weigh more than 150 grams, which should not be a problem for helicopters. NASA officials said helicopters are unlikely to be able to retrieve sample tubes located more than 700 meters away. of the lander.

DDuring the retrieval phase, independently operating grab helicopters will fly to a sample tube, land nearby, glide to grab it, and then fly back to the sample retrieval lander. After depositing the tube nearby, ESA’s robotic arm will pick it up and place it on the ascent stage. This will be done methodically until all sample caches have been collected.

Gramling and his colleagues did not say whether the new plans would reduce the mission’s overall costs, but as Zurbuchen admitted, the mission, now without the recovery rover and a second lander, is “simpler” and “organizationally less complex.” Estimates Earlier reports suggested the project could cost more than $4,400 millions of dollars.

The current plan is to launch the Earth Return Orbiter in 2027 and the Sample Retrieval Lander in 2030. Under this plan, samples should reach Earth in 2033. The program should enter its 12-month preliminary design phase in October.