NASA is smoothing out the final details of its future program to bring back treasured martian samples, also known as the Mars Sample Return Program, and its new helicopters might make future missions much simpler.
The proposed system for retrieving and returning samples from Mars to Earth is in what’s called the conceptual design phase, a period when scientists and designers inspect every crucial facet of the return plan and make necessary changes to ensure success. Previously, the plan included several steps to introduce a Sample Fetch Rover into missions, which is now replaced by two (really cool and kind of cute) recovery helicopters within the main Sample Retrieval Lander.
This design is spearheaded by both NASA and the European Space Agency. The European Space Agency is developing the Earth Return Orbiter, a device that will actually make the historic round-trip from Earth to Mars and back again, NASA explained, as well as a Sample Transfer Arm that will place sample tubes within the device. The new changes will lead scientists to begin building the first prototypes over the next year.
The alterations to the program’s novel design are inspired by recent successes in ongoing missions, says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “There are some significant and advantageous changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance’s recent successes at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Mars helicopter,” Zurbuchen wrote in the announcement.
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The current Mars helicopter, known as Ingenuity, was first launched in July 2020 on the back of Mars’ Perseverance rover, and was used as a test for sustained, controlled flight on the surface of another planet. Ingenuity’s since completed several successful test flights, hovering around the planet’s surface and returning back to land, and was the first flight of its kind in any world beyond Earth, NASA explained.
“Working together on historic endeavors like Mars Sample Return not only provides invaluable data about our place in the universe but brings us closer together right here on Earth,” said Zurbuchen.
Original concept art for the retrieval program, which included a small sample rocket.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Mars helicopter images from April show debris on the planet’s surface.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Simultaneously, a collection of samples is being retrieved by NASA’s Perseverance rover in the planet’s Jezero Crater, which will then be sent back to our home planet for study. In the new design, beloved Perseverance will act as the primary means of delivering samples to the Sample Retrieval Lander alongside the helicopters.
The plan has excited many interested in the Red Planet for a long while. On July 25, representatives from NASA and the European Space Agency laid out the current plan for sample return, which sets the launch of the Earth Return Orbiter and Sample Retrieval Lander in fall 2027 and summer 2028, respectively.
But we can’t get too excited just yet. The Mars Sample Return Program isn’t estimated to actually return any samples until 2033. Until then, we’ll simply stare at the beautiful, sometimes strange, images captured by good ol’ Perseverance.