The Mars Sample Return mission will take two helicopters to the Red Planet to help retrieve the samples

NASA’s upcoming Mars sample return mission plan has received a glow: It will now carry two helicopters, each capable of retrieving samples and delivering them to the Ascent Rover to return to Earth.

The helicopters are replacing the previously planned rover, which has now been completely eliminated from the plan. The staging vehicle required a second landing, while the helicopters could fit alongside the boarding vehicle, simplifying the task and reducing its overall cost and complexity.

The decision was announced in a press release earlier this week, which indicated that NASA had completed a review of system requirements for the sample return mission.

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Sample return efforts are already underway, as Perseverance Rover has been actively collecting samples from scientifically important sites at Jezero Crater on Mars, and has been since early 2021. The original plan for the perseverance was to temporarily store sample tubes to bring the rover for later collection. However, persistence remains strong, and NASA expects it will last long enough for samples to be delivered to the ascent vehicle itself. The two helicopters will provide increased delivery capabilities should perseverance fail.

Several recent developments have made the updated plan possible. Longevity of perseverance is one of those. The other is the absolute success of the Ingenuity helicopter, accompanying Perseverance, which made its first powered flight on Mars in 2021. It has now lasted more than a year longer than its expected operational life, having made 29 flights in that time. More than just a proof of concept, Ingenuity has demonstrated that powered flight vehicles can be versatile and adept to perform a variety of missions on Mars.

At a media briefing on July 27, Richard Cook, director of JPL’s Mars Sample Return Program, noted that the new helicopters will be distinct from innovation in two ways. The first is that it will have a set of small wheels in place of landing legs “that allow helicopters to pass through the surface on the ground as well as fly… and second, each helicopter will have a small arm that can reach down and grab… sample tubes.” These capabilities would only be necessary if the Perseverance itself could not deliver samples, but their presence is a convenient insurance policy should things go south with the rover.

After 5 years and 60 candidates, NASA has chosen Jezero crater as the landing site for the Mars 2020 rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown University
Jezero Crater on Mars, where perseverance and ingenuity collect rock samples. They will be joined in 2028 by a boarding vehicle and two new unmanned helicopters to help bring the samples back to Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown University

The helicopters, along with the probe carrying the ascent stage, are expected to be launched from Earth in 2028 (an orbital vehicle built by the European Space Agency. [ESA] It will precede them in 2027). After perseverance and/or helicopter retrieval of the samples, the ascent stage will transport them to Mars orbit and rendezvous with the orbiter, before returning the precious core samples to Earth in 2033.

Changes to the Mars sample return program support recommendations of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, released back in April 2022. The survey indicated that a successful Mars sample return should be the top scientific priority of NASA’s robotic exploration efforts this decade, but not at the expense of other missions. The survey cautioned that “its cost should not be allowed to undermine the long-term programmatic balance of the planetary portfolio.” Restructuring the mission to make the second rover and lander unnecessary should help keep costs manageable, while Ingenuity’s success provides compelling evidence that the new plan should be feasible.

If all goes well, scientists may soon be pampered by the riches of Martian dust and rock. Alongside the efforts of NASA and the European Space Agency, a Chinese sample return mission is scheduled to return Mars soil to Earth by 2031, and a Japanese mission plans to return samples from Mars’ largest moon Phobos in 2029.

While in-situ geology by rovers like Perseverance and its predecessor Curiosity can tell us a lot about conditions on Mars, there are possible investigative tools and techniques in labs on Earth that no rover can match. Sample return missions will allow scientists to study the minerals in greater detail, revealing the history of the Red Planet, and possibly its ecosystems (if they ever existed).

Funding for the project is also in place. Yesterday, the US Senate passed a spending bill for fiscal year 23, proposing to give NASA the money it requested for next year to push the project forward.

You can read more about the sample return mission here:

Featured image: An artist’s view of the infrastructure of the Mars Re-sample Program. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.