NASA wants two more helicopters on the Red Planet in its attempt to return Martian rocks to Earth by 2030.

An artistic concept of various ground and air robots that can collaborate to send samples of rock and soil collected from Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The Creativity Helicopter worked so well that NASA decided to send more to the Red Planet. With the small helicopter that can, NASA and the European Space Agency have chosen to revise the Mars Initial Sample Return (MSR) program, removing the rover and its lander and replacing it with two other innovation-inspired aircraft.

The Sample Fetch Rover, which would have been provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), and its second associated lander will not be part of the MSR campaign. Instead, two sample recovery helicopters will be part of the Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL), based on the design of the Ingenuity helicopter, which has made 29 flights and lasted more than a year beyond its expected life. These Marscopters won’t take center stage, but they will serve as a secondary capability to retrieve samples hidden on Mars if Plan A fails with persistence.

“The conceptual design phase is when every aspect of the mission plan is brought under the microscope,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters. “There are some significant and beneficial changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance’s recent successes at Jezero and the impressive performance of our Mars aircraft.”

With the addition of small wheels at the bottom of the landing legs, the sample return mission helicopters will be about the same size as the creativity. This will enable each helicopter to travel a short distance to stretch over a sample, after which a small robotic arm can retrieve the tube.

“There will be landing legs that will include, at the bottom, transport wheels,” NASA MSR program manager Richard Cook told reporters during a briefing, saying that this new capability would allow helicopters to “pass across the surface.” The miniature robotic arm on each vehicle will allow the drones to pick up samples of tubes that perseverance leaves behind, if necessary.

The original schedule called for both Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) and SRL launches in 2026. Samples stored by Perseverance will be collected using ESA’s rover, then loaded onto the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and sent into orbit. In 2031, the spacecraft is tentatively scheduled to return its payload to Earth using a system provided by NASA.

However, in traditional NASA fashion, the dates have been pushed back and the samples are now expected to return to Earth by 2033 with the spacecraft and lander scheduled for launch in the fall of 2027 and summer 2028 respectively.

Perseverance, which is still expected to be in place when the expected new lander smashes into the Martian crater in 2031, will now be the primary mode of transportation, sending 30 samples to the probe using the MAV. The robotic arm provided by the European Space Agency will transport samples of perseverance to the launch vehicle.

“Key to our new architecture is the recent assessment of persistence reliability and life expectancy based on its performance to date,” said Jeff Gramling, director of NASA’s Mars Sample Return Program. “We have confidence that the rover will be available to deliver samples to the lander in 2030, when we need it.”

Since landing at Jezero Crater on February 18, 2021, the Perseverance rover has collected 11 scientifically compelling core samples and one atmospheric sample. The study focuses on a river delta along the crater rim that has since dried up, a potential site for preserving signs of ancient life.

Ingenuity has flown 29 flights so far and has been able to survive more than a year beyond its planned life.

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