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NASA makes dramatic change to Mars Sample Return mission

NASA's Mars Sample Return mission.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

NASA has announced a dramatic change to its Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, which will attempt to transport rock and soil from the martian surface all the way to Earth.

The space agency’s Perseverance rover is currently exploring Jezero Crater on Mars, gathering the samples for return to Earth in the MSR mission in 2033.

Speaking at a media briefing on Wednesday, July 27, NASA said recent analysis of Perseverance’s performance showed that the robot vehicle will be able to operate longer than expected. This discovery has led NASA to ditch the Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) that it was planning to use to collect the cached samples, as Perseverance can do the work instead.

That means the SFR’s lander is also no longer required, enabling NASA to further simplify the return mission.

But the most exciting news to come out of the NASA on Wednesday is its plan to include in the MSR mission two sample recovery helicopters based on the design of the hugely successful Ingenuity Mars helicopter, which last year made history when it became the first aircraft to achieve powered, controlled flight on another planet.

“The Sample Retrieval Lander will include two sample recovery helicopters, based on the design of the Ingenuity helicopter, which has performed 29 flights at Mars and survived over a year beyond its original planned lifetime,” NASA said in a release, adding that the helicopters will offer a secondary capability to retrieve the cached samples, with Perseverance acting as the primary retriever.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed and built the Ingenuity helicopter and so would likely be involved in the development of the two flying machines for the MSR mission.

Commenting on the updated strategy for the ambitious endeavor to transport material from Mars to Earth, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA headquarters, said: “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.”

Mars samples brought to Earth by the Earth Return Orbiter will allow scientists to analyze the rock, dust, and sand using advanced laboratory equipment. NASA hopes the work will enable it to confirm once and for all if microbial life ever existed on the distant celestial body. If it did, it could help us to learn more about how life developed on our own planet.

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