NASA and the European Space Agency are on track to bring the first-ever Mars soil and atmosphere samples back to Earth. Today both space agencies shared an update on exactly how they plan to do that thanks to the Mars helicopter Ingenuity.
NASA’s experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity proved extremely successful on the Red Planet. Before its first flight, there was a real possibility that it wouldn’t actually fly with the Martian atmosphere. Fast-forward to now and Ingenuity logged 29 flights — far beyond what was considered before.
The updated Mars Sample Return mission will rely on two new Martian helicopters based on the design of Ingenuity. Deemed sample recovery helicopters, NASA says the duo “will provide a secondary capability to retrieve samples cached on the surface of Mars.”
The predicted longevity of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover is also affecting the Sample Return Mission plan.
“This advanced mission architecture takes into consideration a recently updated analysis of Perseverance’s expected longevity,” NASA announced. “Perseverance will be the primary means of transporting samples to NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander carrying the Mars Ascent Vehicle and ESA’s Sample Transfer Arm.”
The updated mission plan will no longer rely on a Sample Fetch Rover and its second lander. This efficiency removes a level of complexity to the overall mission.
The Perseverance Mars rover has already sampled 11 rock core locations as well as Mars’s atmosphere.
Mars Sample Return
NASA and ESA both have to secure full funding for the Sample Return Mission. NASA says it hopes to formalize an agreement with ESA “in the next year.” The 22 European states involved in ESA will also need to vote on and approve the mission alterations. The mission concept was presented in May and will be voted upon in September.
As for the timeline, both space agencies are working toward launching the necessary Earth Return Orbiter in fall 2027 and Sample Retrieval Lander on summer 2028. If they can pull this off, the first-ever Mars sample returns will reach labs back on Earth in 2033.