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2 Ingenuity-class helicopters will join Mars sample return effort

Artist's conception of the vehicles that would participate in a Mars sample return by NASA and the European Space Agency.

Artist’s illustration of the vehicles that may take part in the Mars sample return campaign organized by NASA and the European Space Agency.(Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The campaign to create pristine Martian samples to Earth will now include two mini helicopters.

NASA officials associated with the Mars sample return (MSR) effort announced today (July 27) they intend to redesign the mission, abandoning a previous concept that needed a European Space Agency (ESA) “fetch rover” that could touch down alone lander.

NASA’s Perseverance rover, likely to be active whenever a NASA MSR lander touches down in 2031, will now be tasked with bringing the samples it really is collecting and caching to a Mars ascent vehicle. Failing that, however, two helicopters similar to Ingenuity, which landed with Perseverance this past year, will undoubtedly be backup options to get the caches themselves.

The helicopters will undoubtedly be much like Ingenuity when it comes to size and mass, but with two key differences, NASA MSR program manager Richard Cook told reporters throughout a briefing today.

“You will have landing legs offering, in the bottom of these, mobility wheels,” Cook explained, saying this new capability allows the helicopters to “traverse over the surface.” A mini robotic-arm on each one of the craft allows the drones to get the sample tubes Perseverance results in, if you need to.

Related: 12 amazing photos from the Perseverance rover’s 1st year on Mars

If the helicopters are essential for such work, they’ll land near an example tube, roll to pick it up, then fly to an area close to the Mars ascent vehicle. After touchdown, the helicopters will roll nearer to the automobile and drop the sample at your fingertips of a newly announced ESA-built transfer arm.

The redesign decision implies that no ESA rover will touch down on Mars soon. However the new concept also may allow NASA and ESA to perform the ambitious sample return effort with less cost and complication, based on the coalition.

“The engineer in me was fascinated with the sample rover, because it’s made to travel considerably faster than previous Mars rovers, probably about 4 or 5 times as quickly on the surface,” David Parker, director of ESA’s human and robotic exploration, told reporters today.

Adding the rover, however, could have entailed “another launch, second lander etc,” which meant that removing the hardware from the manifest “makes significant amounts of programmatic sense,” he said.

ESA continues to be creating a rover tasked with landing on Mars a life-hunting robot named Rosalind Franklin. That rover was likely to launch this season on a Russian rocket, but that plan fell through after Russia invaded Ukraine. Rosalind Franklin is currently likely to lift off no sooner than 2028.

“The engineering team has been working at great speed to get an alternative solution approach for delivering Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars,” Parker said of the problem, saying different alternatives are under discussion. A particular European council meeting in Paris in November allows member states to choose the very best path forward, he added.

Life on Mars: Exploration and evidence

The European ExoMars rover may reach Mars in 2028.

The European ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover is likely to launch no sooner than 2028 because of changes in its landing platform and launching rocket. (Image credit: ESA)

Elements of the revised MSR plan remain being exercised. Officials haven’t any estimate yet on the price but claim that only having an individual lander likely to Mars will undoubtedly be much less costly than sending two. The helicopters likewise have no defined primary mission, although they might be tasked with observing the region round the Martian ascent vehicle or observing the rocket since it will take off from the Red Planet, Cook said.

This new design was spurred partly by the impressive performance of other hardware which has greatly exceeded its lifespan on the Red Planet, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

The Curiosity rover, which informed the look of Perseverance, will celebrate 10 years on Mars on Aug. 5. Ingenuity was cleared for a five-flight plan in its design but has flown 29 times on the Red Planet up to now.

There has been plenty of movement on the MSR file lately. IN-MAY, NASA asked the general public to supply comments on an environmental assessment because the agency readies for a draft environmental impact statement later in 2022.

The second lander requirement, now dropped, itself was added only in March following theMars Sample Return Independent Review Board said a dual lander capability “may enhance the possibility of mission success,” in accordance with NASA statements at that time.

However the addition of the next lander forced the mission to push the launch date 2 yrs back again to 2028, and the takeoff to come back to Earth another 2 yrs to 2031. (Those timelines haven’t changed with the brand new mission plan.)

NASA also announced through the MSR press conference that the Perseverance rover is in the center of picking right up its 11th sample on the Red Planet. That sample, a fine-grained sedimentary rock, was selected because of its potential in preserving biosignatures that could be key to greatly help scientists measure the chances for life on Mars.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is really a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to greatly help others explore the universe. Elizabeth’s on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from the simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada’s Carleton University. Elizabeth can be a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got thinking about space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, but still really wants to be an astronaut someday.

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