The agency is currently building two space helicopters to execute this task after Ingenuity’s impressive record.
Prior to this time, there was an arrangement; Mars Sample Return Program designed to transport some rock samples from the Jezero crater which is being drilled by the Perseverance Rover. Altering the plan to use the Sample Fetch Rover to transport these rocks from Mars, the agency has decided to use Perseverance and prepare two space helicopters modelled on Ingenuity to serve as back up.
The Sample Return Program has been one of the major preoccupations of the ESA and NASA for some few years. The initial arrangement was to use the Fetch Rover built by the ESA to fetch rock samples and pass them on to a rocket which will deliver them to the Earth Return Orbiter. The size of the Rover which means it cannot fit into one lander has however created the need for alternatives.
Going by the current projections, the Sample Return Lander will be in Mars anytime from the year 2030 when Perseverance would have become operational. The altered arrangement will now see Perseverance delivering 30 rock samples to the lander and these will be loaded onto the rocket.
A contingency plan is also in place should Perseverance experience complications. The plan is to set the lander closer to the rover so that the prepared backup helicopters can pick up the rock samples. Unlike Ingenuity which they are designed after, these helicopters will come with tiny wheels at the bottom to enable them navigate through where the rover will drop the already sealed samples.
Ingenuity already went through it first test run on Mars since April 2021 to affirm NASA’s posture on the possibility of flights on Mars. The space helicopter has since completed 29 flights and still counting. This is an alternative option and opportunity for NASA to collect the samples Perseverance has been accumulating so far.
During the announcement of the Samole Return Program Plan, associate administrator of the science directorate of NASA Dr Thomas Zurbuchen reiterated how NASA’s decision was founded on the recent achievements made in Mars which has created the room to explore new opportunities which were hitherto unrealistic.
While the Earth Return Orbiter will set sail in the fall of 2027, the Sample Retrieval Lander will set off in the summer of 2028. Samples are projected to arrive anytime from 2033 because shuttling earth and Mars will take several years.