NASA will ship extra helicopters to Mars

The primary helicopter that NASA despatched to Mars labored so properly that it’s sending two extra. The helicopters are just like Ingenuity, the “Marscopter” that accompanied NASA’s Perseverance rover to Mars. However they’ll have the added potential of having the ability to seize and transport small tubes crammed with bits of Martian rock. (Consider them as extraterrestrial drones, related in idea to those Amazon has been growing to ship packages.)

That’s a part of a serious rejiggering of NASA’s subsequent nice mission to Mars, a collaboration with the European Area Company to convey Martian rocks again to Earth for shut examination by scientists utilizing state-of-the-art laboratory gear that can’t match right into a spacecraft.

“We now have a path ahead utilizing a revised and modern structure,” Thomas Zurbuchen, affiliate administrator for NASA’s science directorate, mentioned throughout a information convention Wednesday that offered an replace on the mission, referred to as Mars Pattern 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 first-rate location the place indicators of historical life is perhaps preserved if any organisms ever lived there.

The unique 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 might be loaded onto a rocket and launched into Martian orbit. One other spacecraft would seize the container with the rocks and take them to Earth. However the design of the rover was turning into greater, and it, together with that rocket, was getting too heavy to suit on one lander. Earlier this 12 months, NASA introduced that it was going to make use of two landers — one for the rover and one for the return rocket.

The mission redesign eliminates the fetch rover. As an alternative, the plan is for Perseverance to drive to the lander, the place 30 rock samples can be loaded onto the return rocket. As Curiosity, a rover with a design that’s nearly similar 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 Pattern Return lander arrives in 2030.

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

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

NASA officers have been stunned by the persevering with accomplishments of Ingenuity, carried to Mars on the underside of Perseverance. Initially, the helicopter was going to fly a number of occasions throughout a one-month know-how demonstration quickly after the mission landed on Mars in February 2021, after which Perseverance would depart Ingenuity behind and get on with its fundamental scientific mission.

However Ingenuity’s flights — a troublesome technological problem within the wispy air of Mars — had been so profitable that NASA determined to have the helicopter proceed to observe Perseverance, serving as an aerial scout of the panorama forward. Ingenuity has now flown 29 occasions.

“We reached our resolution primarily based on new research and up to date achievements at Mars that allowed us to contemplate choices that, frankly, weren’t accessible to us one 12 months in the past or earlier than,” Zurbuchen mentioned.

The helicopters for the pattern return mission can be roughly the identical dimension as Ingenuity however with the addition of small wheels on the backside of the touchdown legs. That will enable 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 Pattern Return mission solely requires one lander, not two. That simplifies the mission design — every touchdown on Mars provides to the danger — and helps hold prices down. The entire value of the mission can be billions of {dollars}, however NASA wouldn’t speculate how a lot.

“All I can say proper now could be the plain,” mentioned Jeff Gramling, director for the Mars Pattern Return program at NASA. “One lander definitely is way less expensive than two.”

This text initially appeared in The New York Occasions.