Science

NASA Will Send More Helicopters to Mars

The first helicopter that NASA despatched to Mars labored so nicely that it’s sending two extra.

The helicopters are comparable to Ingenuity, the “Marscopter” that accompanied NASA’s Perseverance rover to Mars. But they will have the added skill of having the ability to seize and transport small tubes crammed with bits of Martian rock. (Think of them as extraterrestrial drones, comparable in idea to those Amazon has been creating to ship packages.)

That is a part of a significant rejiggering of NASA’s subsequent nice mission to Mars, a collaboration with the European Space Agency to deliver Martian rocks again to Earth for shut examination by scientists utilizing state-of-the-art laboratory tools that can’t match right into a spacecraft .

“We have a path ahead utilizing a revised and revolutionary structure,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the affiliate administrator for NASA’s science directorate, mentioned throughout a information convention on Wednesday that offered an replace on the mission, generally known as Mars Sample Return.

The Perseverance rover has been drilling rock samples throughout its exploration of a crater named Jezero. Its focus is on a dried-up river delta alongside the crater rim, a major location the place indicators of historical life could be preserved if any organisms ever lived there.

The authentic plan was to ship a rover constructed by the ESA to choose up the samples and carry them again to the lander, the place they’d be loaded onto a rocket and launched into Martian orbit. Another spacecraft would seize the container with the rocks and take them to Earth. But the design of the rover was changing into greater, and it, together with that rocket, was getting too heavy to match on one lander. Earlier this yr, NASA introduced that it was going to use two landers — one for the rover, and one for the return rocket.

The mission redesign eradicated the fetch rover. Instead, the plan is for Perseverance to drive to the lander, the place 30 rock samples could be loaded onto the return rocket. As Curiosity, a rover with a design that’s virtually equivalent to that of Perseverance, continues to function on Mars a decade after its arrival, NASA managers are assured that Perseverance will nonetheless be in working order when the Mars Sample Return lander arrives in 2030.

The helicopters could be a backup choice if one thing went incorrect with Perseverance. The pattern return lander would settle shut to the place Perseverance had dropped the rock samples on the bottom, sealed inside tubes in regards to the dimension of cigars. The helicopters would then fly the samples again to the lander.

The journey again to Earth would take a couple of extra years, touchdown in a small capsule in 2033.

NASA officers have been shocked by the persevering with accomplishments of Ingenuity, carried to Mars on the underside of Perseverance. Originally, the helicopter was going to fly a couple of occasions throughout a one-month know-how demonstration quickly after the mission landed on Mars in February 2021, after which Perseverance would go away Ingenuity behind and get on with its primary scientific mission. Ingenuity has now flown 29 occasions.

But the Ingenuity’s flights — a troublesome technological problem within the wispy air of Mars — have been so profitable that NASA determined to have the helicopter proceed to observe Perseverance, serving as an aerial scout of the panorama forward.

“We reached our resolution based mostly on new research and up to date achievements at Mars that allowed us to take into account choices that, frankly, weren’t out there to us one yr in the past or earlier than,” Dr. Zurbuchen mentioned.

The helicopters for the pattern return mission could be roughly the identical dimension, however with the addition of small wheels on the backside of the touchdown legs. That would permit every of the helicopters to drive a brief distance to straddle a pattern tube; then, a small robotic arm would choose up the tube.

With the elimination of the fetch rover, the Mars Sample Return mission solely requires one lander, not two. That simplifies the mission design — every touchdown on Mars provides to the chance — and helps hold prices down.

The whole price of the mission will likely be billions of {dollars}, however NASA wouldn’t speculate how a lot. “All I can say proper now’s the plain,” mentioned Jeff Gramling, the director for the Mars Sample Return program at NASA. “One lander actually is far more cost effective than two.”

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