NASA abandons Mars sample return rover and adds two helicopters

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NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently orbiting the red planet, collecting samples and sending data back to Earth. NASA plans to launch new missions in the coming years in collaboration with ESA to collect these samples and return them to Earth. The agency just completed a major overhaul of the Mars sample return program, and there are some significant changes (and not the first). NASA is canceling the Sample Fetch Rover and adding a pair of helicopters based on Ingenuity’s design.

In addition to its array of cameras and scientific instruments, the Perseverance rover has a sample cache system designed to store rock cores in ultra-sterile containers. NASA had a small problem with this mechanism early on, but the rover has successfully scooped up Martian rocks. NASA only had a vague outline of the plan to return these samples to Earth when Perseverance landed on Mars in 2021, but we’re getting closer to a final plan for this ambitious mission.

NASA says Perseverance’s updated lifetime projections mean the sample return mission won’t need a new rover at all. Instead, Perseverance will be the primary means of transporting samples to the Mars ascent vehicle, but the lander will also include a pair of sample recovery helicopters that are based on Ingenuity’s design. NASA initially expected the plane, the first to fly on another planet, to last only a few months before its available hardware failed. Still, it has flown 29 times and survived a year beyond the original estimate. The new helicopters will act as a secondary method of retrieving samples from the surface.

Getting pristine Martian samples to Earth opens up a range of scientific studies not possible with a robotic mission to Mars. So far, Perseverance has collected 11 potentially interesting samples and has room for a few dozen more.

After loading the samples into the capture, containment and return system, the Mars Ascent Vehicle will send them into orbit. There, the payload will rendezvous with ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter; no changes are recommended for this part of the mission. NASA expects to launch the Sample Retrieval Lander in 2028, and the ESA orbiter will leave Earth (temporarily) in 2027. The samples should reach Earth in 2033, if all goes as planned. The timing could still change dramatically if NASA or ESA miss their launch windows. China also recently announced that it hopes to beat NASA and ESA.

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