As Perseverance searches the site of an ancient lake that has existed for billions of years, it collects rocks and soil. This material is important because it could contain evidence of past microorganisms that would reveal whether life existed on Mars. Scientists will have the opportunity to use some of the most advanced tools around the world to study these precious specimens.
The ambitious Mars Sample Return Program includes a collaboration between the two agencies to retrieve 30 samples from the Red Planet. Multiple missions to Mars will be launched later this decade to capture samples and return them safely.
The program is nearing the end of the conceptual design phase, and NASA has completed a review of system requirements. The revision led to changes that would reduce the complexity of future missions and increase the likelihood of success, according to NASA officials.
“The conceptual design phase is when every aspect of the mission plan is brought under the microscope,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a statement. “There are some significant and beneficial changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance’s recent successes at Jezero and the impressive performance of our Mars aircraft.”
Initially, the plan was to launch a rover with a sample landing module for retrieval in mid-2020. Once launched on the surface of Mars, the rover would have retrieved samples from where Perseverance had hidden them on Mars.
Now, persistence will be the primary means of transport for transporting samples to the probe. The latest assessment of the health and life expectancy of the rover shows that it should remain in perfect condition to deliver samples itself in 2030. Perseverance will return to the probe, and the rover’s robotic arm will transport the samples.
The sample recovery sampler will carry two sample recovery helicopters, similar in style to the Ingenuity helicopter currently on the surface of Mars – rather than a fetch vehicle.
“Recent operations of the Ingenity helicopter on Mars, which have completed 29 flights — more than 24 flights — have shown us the potential benefit of Mars helicopters,” said Jeff Gramling, director of the Mars Sample Return Program.
The engineers were impressed by the creativity performance. The helicopter survived more than a year of its life expectancy. In the event that persistence cannot return the samples to the probe, small helicopters will be able to fly away from the probe, and use weapons to retrieve and return the samples.
The two typical return helicopters will be similar in size to the Creativity but will be a bit heavier. The landing legs will be equipped with small wheels for mobility to allow them to travel on Earth as well as fly, and each helicopter will have a small arm that can pick up sample tubes, said Richard Cook, director of NASA’s Mars Sample Return Program for Jet Propulsion. Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
If persistence health remains the same for the next eight years and you don’t need any help returning samples to the probe, helicopters can monitor and take pictures of the process.
Return the samples to Earth
The sample retrieval vehicle also carries the Mars Ascent Rover – the first rocket ever launched from the surface of Mars, with samples safely placed inside. The spacecraft is currently set to launch from Mars in 2031.
A separate mission will be launched from Earth in mid-2020, called the Earth Return Orbiter, to rendezvous with the Mars Ascent Rover.
Aboard the Earth Return Orbiter is a capture/containment and return system, which will collect a container of samples from the Mars Ascent Rover while both vehicles are in orbit around Mars.
After that, the Earth’s return probe will return to our world. Once the spacecraft approaches Earth, it will launch an Earth Entry Vehicle containing a cache of samples, and that spacecraft will land on Earth in 2033.
Earlier, the agency said samples could return to Earth by 2031, but the planned launch dates for the orbiter in fall 2027 and the lander in summer 2028 set a new arrival date.
Engineers are currently testing robotic components for the campaign at NASA and European Space Agency centers. The Mars sample return program will move to the initial design phase in October, which will last for about a year. The design phase will lead to technology development as well as engineering models of key components.
“ESA is continuing at full speed the development of both the Earth return probe that will make the historic round-trip journey from Earth to Mars and back again; and a sample transport arm that will automatically place the sample tubes aboard the orbiting sample container ahead of it, said David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, in a statement.
The Perseverance Chariot has collected 11 core rock samples so far. The samples represent an “amazing array of materials,” said Meenakshi Wadwa, principal scientist in returning the Mars sample and director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.
“The last one, in fact, is a fine-grained sedimentary rock that has the most potential for preserving biometric fingerprints, so we have a variety of materials already in the bag, so to speak, and are really excited about the potential,” Waddoa said.
“Working together on historical endeavors such as returning a Martian sample not only provides invaluable data about our place in the universe but brings us closer together here on Earth,” Zurbuchen said.
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