NASA to send more helicopters to Mars

The first helicopter NASA sent to Mars worked so well that it is sending two more. The helicopters are similar to Ingenuity, the “marcopter” that went to Mars with NASA’s Perseverance rover. But they would have the added capability of being able to hold and transport small tubes filled with pieces of Martian rock. (Think of them as the extraterrestrial drones that Amazon is developing to deliver packages.)

It is part of a major reimagining of NASA’s next great mission to Mars, which is collaborating with the European Space Agency to bring Martian rocks back to Earth for close examination by scientists using state-of-the-art laboratory equipment. May not fit in spacecraft. ,

“We have a way forward using a modified and innovative architecture,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Directorate, said during a news conference on Wednesday, who provided an update on the mission, which is known as Mars Sample Return. Is known.

The Persistence rover is drilling rock samples during an exploration of the Jezero crater. Its focus is on a dried-up river delta along the crater rim, a prime location where signs of ancient life may have been preserved if an organism ever lived there.

The original plan was to send a rover built by ESA to collect samples and transport them back to the lander, where they would be loaded onto a rocket and launched into Martian orbit. Another spacecraft will grab the container with the rocks and take it to Earth. But the design of the rover kept getting bigger, and it was getting too heavy to fit on a lander as well as a rocket. Earlier this year, NASA announced that it was going to use two landers – one for the rover and the other for the return rocket.

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The mission redesign removes the Fetch rover. Instead, the plan is to drive the lander to Perseverance, where 30 rock samples will be loaded onto the return rocket. As Curiosity, a rover with a design that is nearly identical to Persistence, continues to operate on Mars a decade after its arrival, NASA managers are confident that Persistence is yet to arrive when the Mars Sample Return lander arrives in 2030. will also be in working condition.

The helicopter will be a backup option in case something goes wrong with the persistence. The sample return lander would settle close to where the Persistence dropped rock samples to the ground, sealed within tubes about the size of a cigar. The helicopters will then transport the samples back to the lander.

It will take a few more years to get back to Earth, landing in a small capsule in 2033.

NASA officials are puzzled by the continued achievements of Ingenuity taken to Mars beneath Perseverance. Originally, the helicopter was supposed to fly a few times during a month-long technology demonstration shortly after the mission’s landing on Mars in February 2021, and then Perseverance would overtake Simplicity and move on with its main scientific mission.

But the flights of Ingenuity – a difficult technical challenge in the wispy air of Mars – were so successful that NASA decided that the helicopter would continue to follow Perseverance, serving as an aerial scout of the landscape ahead. Simplicity has now flown 29 times.

“We arrived at our decision based on new studies and recent achievements on Mars, which allowed us to consider alternatives that, frankly, were not available to us a year ago or so,” Zurbuchen said. .

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Helicopters for the sample return mission would be roughly the same size as the Ingenuity, but with the addition of smaller wheels under the landing legs. This would allow each helicopter to travel a short distance to stretch a sample tube; Then, a small robotic arm will lift the tube.

With the elimination of the Fetch rover, only one lander is needed for the Mars Sample Return mission, not two. This simplifies mission design – each landing on Mars adds to the risk – and helps keep costs down. The total cost of the mission would be billions of dollars, but NASA would not estimate how much.

“What I can say right now is clear,” said Jeff Gremling, director of the Mars Sample Return Program at NASA. “One lander is certainly a lot less expensive than two.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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