As Perseverance investigates the site of an ancient lake that existed billions of years ago, he collects rocks and dirt. This material is interesting because it could contain evidence of past microscopic organisms that would reveal whether life ever existed on Mars. Scientists will have the chance to use some of the most sophisticated instruments in the world to study these precious samples.
The ambitious Mars Sample Return program involves a collaboration between the two agencies to retrieve 30 samples from the red planet. Several missions will be launched on Mars later this decade to recover and return the samples safely.
The program is nearing the end of its conceptual design phase, and NASA has completed its review of system requirements. The review led to changes that will reduce the complexity of future missions and increase the likelihood of success, NASA officials say.
“The conceptual design phase is when every facet of a mission plan is put under the microscope,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “There are significant and beneficial changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance’s recent successes at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Mars helicopter.”
From now on, Perseverance will be the main transport vehicle to transport the samples to the lander. The rover’s latest health and life expectancy assessment shows it should still be in perfect condition to deliver the samples itself in 2030. Perseverance will return to the lander, and the robotic arm of the lander will transfer the samples.
The sample retrieval lander will carry two sample retrieval helicopters, similar in style to the Ingenuity helicopter currently on Mars – rather than one retrieval rover.
“The recent operations of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, which performed 29 flights – 24 more than originally planned – showed us the utility of a potential Mars rotorcraft,” said Jeff Gramling, director of the Mars Sample Return Program.
Engineers were impressed with Ingenuity’s performance. The helicopter survived more than a year beyond its design life. In the event that Perseverance is unable to return the samples to the lander, small helicopters will be able to fly off the lander, use arms to retrieve the samples, and bring them back.
The two sample return helicopters will be similar in size to Ingenuity but will be a bit heavier. The landing legs will have small mobility wheels to allow it to travel on the ground as well as fly, and each helicopter will have a small arm that can grab sample tubes, said Richard Cook, Mars Sample program manager. Return to NASA’s Jet Propulsion. Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
If Perseverance’s health remains the same for the next eight years and she doesn’t need help getting the samples back to the lander, helicopters could observe and capture footage of the process.
Bring samples back to Earth
The sample retrieval lander also carries the Martian Ascent Vehicle – the first rocket ever launched from the Martian surface, with the samples safely stowed inside. The spacecraft is currently scheduled to launch from Mars in 2031.
A separate mission will launch from Earth in the mid-2020s, called the Earth Return Orbiter, to encounter the Mars Ascent Vehicle.
Onboard the Earth Return Orbiter is the Capture/Containment and Return System, which will collect the sample container from the Mars Ascent Vehicle while both vehicles are in orbit around Mars.
The Earth Return Orbiter will then return to our world. Once the spacecraft is close to Earth, it will release the Earth Entry Vehicle which contains the sample cache, and this spacecraft will land on Earth in the year 2033.
Previously, the agency said samples could return to Earth by 2031, but planned launch dates for the orbiter in fall 2027 and the lander in summer 2028 created the new launch date. arrival.
“ESA is pursuing full speed development of both the Earth Return Orbiter which will perform the historic round trip from Earth to Mars and back; and the Sample Transfer Arm which will robotically place the tubes of samples aboard the Orbital Sample Container prior to launch from the surface of the Red Planet,” David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotics exploration, said in a statement.
The Perseverance rover has collected 11 rock core samples so far. The samples represent “an amazing suite of material,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, lead scientist for Mars Sample Return and director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.
“The latest, actually, is a fine-grained sedimentary rock that has the greatest potential for preserving biosignatures, potentially, and so we have a diversity of material already in the bag, so to speak, and really excited about the potential to bring them back,” Wadhwa said.
“Working together on landmark projects like Mars Sample Return not only provides invaluable insight into our place in the universe, but also brings us closer here on Earth,” Zurbuchen said.
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