As Perseverance explores the site of an ancient lake that existed billions of years ago, it collects rocks and soil. This material is of interest because it may contain evidence for the existence of microscopic organisms in the past, which could show whether life ever existed on Mars. Scientists will have the opportunity to use some of the most sophisticated instruments in the world to study these precious specimens.
The ambitious Mars sample return program involves collaboration between the two agencies to obtain 30 samples from the red planet. At the end of this decade, several missions will be launched to Mars to safely collect and return samples.
The program is nearing completion of the conceptual design phase, and NASA has completed 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 said.
“The conceptual design stage is when every aspect of the mission plan is looked at under a microscope,” Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “There are some important and beneficial changes to the plan that can be directly attributed to the recent successes of Perseverance at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Martian helicopter.”
The Perseverance will now be the primary vehicle for delivering samples to the lander. The latest assessment of the rover’s health and life expectancy indicates it still needs to be in top condition to deliver samples in 2030. Perseverance will maintain the lander, and the lander’s robotic arm will deliver the samples.
The sample-retrieval lander will carry two sample-collection helicopters, similar in style to the Ingenuity helicopter currently on Mars rather than the rover.
“The recent operations of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, which has completed 29 flights — 24 more than originally planned — have shown us the usefulness of a potential helicopter on Mars,” said Jeff Gramling, director of the Mars Sample Return Program.
The engineers were impressed with the performance of the Ingenuity. The helicopter lived for more than a year beyond its expected service life. In the event that Perseverance is unable to return the samples to the lander, small helicopters will be able to fly away from the lander, use weapons to retrieve the samples and bring them back.
The two returned helicopters will be similar in size to the Ingenuity, but slightly heavier. The landing legs will be equipped with small movable wheels that will allow it to move on the ground and fly, and each helicopter will have a small arm that can grab sample tubes, said Richard Cook, Mars sample return program manager at NASA Jet Propulsion. Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
If Perseverance’s health stays the same for the next eight years and it doesn’t need help getting samples to the lander, helicopters will be able to observe and take pictures of the process.
Return of samples to Earth
The sample retrieval lander also carries the Mars Ascent Vehicle, the first rocket ever to be launched from the Martian surface, with the samples safely hidden inside. The spacecraft is currently due to be launched from Mars in 2031.
In the mid-2020s, a separate mission called the Earth Return Orbiter will be launched from Earth to rendezvous with the Mars Ascent Vehicle.
On board the Earth return orbiter is a capture/containment and return system that will collect a container of samples 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 gets close to Earth, it will release an Earth lander containing a cache of samples, and that spacecraft will land on Earth in 2033.
The agency had previously said the samples could return to Earth by 2031, but scheduled launch dates for the orbiter in the fall of 2027 and the lander in the summer of 2028 set a new arrival date.
“The European Space Agency is continuing development at full speed on both the Earth Return Orbiter, which will make a historic flight from Earth to Mars and back, and the Sample Transfer Manipulator, which will automatically place sample vials aboard the Orbital Sample Container before it’s a launch from the surface of the Red Planet,” said David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic research.
The Perseverance rover has collected 11 rock samples so far. The samples are “an amazing array of materials,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, chief scientist at Mars Sample Return and director of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.
“The latter is essentially the fine grained sedimentary rock with the potential to have the most potential for biosignature preservation, and so we already have a variety of materials in the bag, so to speak, and we’re really excited about the potential for biosignature preservation. bring them back,” Wadhwa said.
“Working together on historic projects like the Mars Sample Return not only provides invaluable insight into our place in the universe, but also brings us closer together right here on Earth,” Zurbuchen said.