A fleet of Ingenuity-like helicopters could come to Mars for sample return mission

It’s that time of year again (I feel like it is always that time of year) when drafts of NASA’s next fiscal year budget start to form. During this process, we gain insight into how Congress wants that money spent, which could include changes to existing programs. For example, this year, it looks like Congress was so impressed with Ingenuity’s success that it wants more helicopters (air spacecraft?) for NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission.

The success of NASA’s Ingenuity demonstration mission cannot be understated. Originally expected to last only one month or up to five flights, it has been on the Martian surface for a year now and just completed flight 29. Congress has seen this success and wants to move forward with more, primarily due to the rising cost of the Mars Sample Return mission.

This rising cost of the mission is where the House Appropriations Committee is concerned. The decade-long mission is estimated to cost NASA several billion dollars, and looking back in history, those early estimates never stay the same.

This is where the committee’s idea of using what they call an “Ingenuity-class” helicopter for retrieving the samples Perseverance is already collecting. You have to give it to the bureaucrats this time to devise a possibly great idea. Ingenuity has shown that flight on Mars is capable while not breaking the bank.

The committee’s idea would be to use “more than one Ingenuity-class Mars helicopters” to fly around to collect Perseverance’s core samples. The current working plan is to do this with small rovers, but the committee believes using aircraft could build redundancy in case one or more of the retrieving helicopters fail. However, this would require the current design of Ingenuity to be changed to include a way to pick up and transport the samples.

Below is the full text of the committee’s budget proposal:

The Committee provides the requested funding for Mars Sample Return. However, the Committee is concerned about the rise in cost of Mars Sample Return, as noted by the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023–2032. The Committee is aware that the Mars Sample Return mission is expected to reach Key Decision Point-B later this year and directs NASA to brief the Committee on expected changes to cost, schedule and management challenges revealed during that decisional process, including NASA’s efforts to address such challenges. As NASA conducts Mars Sample Return formulation studies to determine mission architecture and science requirements, the Committee directs NASA to provide a report not later than 180 days after enactment of this Act assessing the feasibility and cost of using more than one Ingenuity-class Mars Helicopter. The report should examine whether using more than one Ingenuity-class Mars Helicopter could increase redundancy and ensure NASA has a capability to return samples by augmenting the Ingenuity helicopter design to add a sample retrieval capability.

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