The campaign to bring pristine Martian samples back to Earth will now include two mini helicopters.
NASA officials involved in the Mars Sample Return (MSR) effort announced today (July 27) that they plan to redesign the mission, abandoning a previous concept that called for a European Space Agency (ESA) “rover” that was supposed to land on its surface. own lander.
NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is expected to still be active when NASA’s MSR lander lands in 2031, will now be tasked with delivering the samples it collects and caches to a Mars ascent vehicle. However, if that fails, the two Ingenuity-like helicopters that landed alongside Perseverance last year will be fallbacks to pick up the caches on their own.
The helicopters will be similar to Ingenuity in size and weight, but with two key differences, Richard Cook, NASA MSR program manager, told reporters at a briefing today.
“There will be landing legs with wheels at the bottom,” Cooke explained, adding that this new capability would allow the helicopters to “move across the surface.” A mini-manipulator on each of the ships will allow the drones to pick up the sample vials Perseverance leaves behind if needed.
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If helicopters are needed for such work, they will land near the sample tube, roll over to pick it up, and then fly to a site near the Mars ascent vehicle. After landing, the helicopters approach the vehicle and drop the sample within range of ESA’s newly announced transmission arm.
The redesign decision means that no ESA rover will land on Mars in the near future. But the new concept could also allow NASA and ESA to achieve the ambitious goal of returning samples with less cost and less complications, according to the coalition.
“The engineer in me was fascinated by the rover model because it’s designed to go much faster than previous rovers, maybe about four or five times faster across the surface,” David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic research, told reporters. . Today.
However, adding a rover would entail “a second launch, a second lander, and so on,” meaning that removing hardware from the manifest “makes a lot of programmatic sense,” he said.
ESA is still building a Mars-landing rover, a life-hunting robot named Rosalind Franklin. This rover was supposed to be launched this year on a Russian rocket, but that plan fell through after Russia invaded Ukraine. Rosalind Franklin is not expected to take off until 2028 at the earliest.
“The engineering team has been working at great speed to find an alternative approach to getting the Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars,” Parker said of the situation, adding that various options are being discussed. He added that a special meeting of the European Council in Paris in November would allow member states to determine the best way forward.
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(Image credit: ESA)
Parts of the revised MSR plan are still being developed. Officials have not yet estimated the cost, but suggest that sending just one lander to Mars would be much cheaper than sending two. Helicopters also don’t have a specific primary mission, Cook said, though they could be tasked with monitoring the area around a Martian lander or a rocket as it takes off from the Red Planet.
This new design was driven in part by the impressive performance of other equipment that has far exceeded its lifespan on the Red Planet, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Office of Science Missions.
The Curiosity rover that inspired the design of Perseverance will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Mars on August 28. 5. Ingenuity was cleared for a five-flight plan but has flown 29 times on the Red Planet to date.
There have been many changes to the MSR file in recent months. In May, NASA asked the public for their comments on the environmental impact assessment as the agency prepares a draft environmental impact statement later in 2022.
The requirement for a second lander, which has now been dropped, was itself only added in March after the Mars Sample Returns Independent Review Board said the possibility of a dual lander “could increase the likelihood of mission success,” according to NASA statements at the time. time.
But the addition of a second lander forced the mission to move the launch date back two years to 2028, and the launch to return to Earth another two years, to 2031. (These timelines have not changed with the new mission plan.)
NASA also announced during the MSR press conference that the Perseverance rover is in the process of collecting its 11th sample on the Red Planet. This sample, a fine-grained sedimentary rock, was chosen for its ability to preserve biosignatures that could help scientists assess the chances of life on Mars.
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