The first helicopter NASA sent to Mars worked so well that they are sending two more.
The helicopters are similar to Ingenuity, the “Marscopter” that escorted NASA’s Perseverance rover to Mars. But they will have the added ability to grab and transport small tubes filled with chunks of Martian rock. (Think of them as alien drones, similar to the ones Amazon developed to deliver packages.)
This is part of a major realignment of NASA’s next big mission to Mars, a collaboration with the European Space Agency to bring Martian rocks back to Earth for scrutiny by scientists using state-of-the-art lab equipment that can’t fit in a spacecraft.
“We have a way forward with a revised and innovative architecture,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, deputy administrator for NASA’s Directorate of Science, during a press conference Wednesday that provided an update on the mission known as Mars Sample Return.
The Perseverance rover drilled rock samples while exploring a crater called Jezero. The focus is on a dry river delta along the crater rim, a prime site that may retain signs of ancient life if organisms ever lived there.
The original plan was to send an ESA-built rover to pick up the samples and bring them back to the lander, where they would be loaded onto a rocket and launched into orbit around Mars. Another spacecraft would grab the container of stones and bring them to Earth. But the design of the rover got bigger and together with this rocket it became too heavy to fit on a lander. Earlier this year, NASA announced it would deploy two landers – one for the rover and one for the return rocket.
The mission redesign eliminates the fetch rover. Instead, Perseverance is to drive to the lander, where 30 rock samples would be loaded onto the return rocket. As Curiosity, a rover with a nearly identical design to Perseverance, continues to operate on Mars a decade after its arrival, NASA executives are confident that Perseverance will still be operational when the Mars Sample Return Lander arrives in 2030.
The helicopters would be a backup option if something went wrong with Perseverance. The Sample Return Lander would land near where Perseverance had dropped the rock samples on the ground, sealed in tubes about the size of cigars. The helicopters would then fly the samples back to the lander.
The journey back to Earth would take a few more years, landing in a small capsule in 2033.
NASA officials were surprised by the continued achievements of Ingenuity carried to Mars on the underside of Perseverance. The helicopter was originally scheduled to fly a few times during a month-long technology demonstration shortly after the mission’s landing on Mars in February 2021, and then Perseverance would surpass Ingenuity and proceed with its main science mission. Ingenuity has now flown 29 times.
But the flights of the Ingenuity – a difficult technological challenge in the thin air of Mars – were so successful that NASA decided to keep the helicopter following Perseverance and serving as an aerial explorer of the landscape ahead.
“We made our decision based on new studies and recent achievements at Mars that allowed us to consider options that honestly weren’t available to us a year or less ago,” said Dr. to book.
The sample retrieval mission helicopters would be roughly the same size, but with the addition of small wheels at the bottom of the landing legs. This would allow each of the helicopters to travel a short distance to span a sample tube; then a small robotic arm would pick up the tube.
With the elimination of the fetch rover, the Mars Sample Return mission now requires only one lander, not two. This simplifies mission design – every landing on Mars increases risk – and helps keep costs down.
The total cost of the mission will be billions of dollars, but NASA declined to speculate how much. “All I can say right now is the obvious,” said Jeff Gramling, director of NASA’s Mars Sample Return program. “One lander is certainly much less expensive than two.”