Friday, July 29, 2022

Mars Ingenuity Is Changing Future Missions

I mentioned in passing yesterday that the success of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars is impacting future missions.  One of those in particular is a mission related to the Ingenuity mission, and the main emphasis of that mission, the Perseverance rover.  Since the earliest days of the Perseverance/Ingenuity mission, the plan has been for the rover collecting interesting rock samples from Jezero Crater (where it's currently exploring) so that a later mission, called the Mars Sample Return Program, could find Perseverance, retrieve the samples and return them to Earth.  

The coverage for details, this time goes to Ars Technica, where the explanations and descriptions are better than at Machine Design. 

At one time, the plans included a second rover from the European Space Agency.  It seems to be getting simplified. 

The Mars sample return plan involves a large collection of challenges, but a central one is that the samples are currently in Perseverance but eventually have to end up in a rocket that takes off from the surface of Mars. That means that Perseverance will have to get close enough to the rocket's landing site—which we can't choose precisely—to exchange the samples, possibly diverting it from scientific objectives. It also can't be too close when the rocket lands since the rocket's landing and its associated hardware could pose a risk to the rover and its samples.

The original plan included a contingency. Perseverance would approach after the rocket had landed, and the samples would be transferred directly. If that didn't work out for whatever reason, a second rover sent to Mars by the ESA would act as an intermediary, visiting a site where the samples had been cached, retrieving them, and then delivering them to the rocket.

In the current plan, the second rover has been eliminated and replaced by two helicopters.  The two will be delivered as part of the same payload as the rocket carrying the samples back up to Mars orbit.  As a result, there's only a single lander that will carry both the return rocket and the helicopters, significantly lowering the risk of the overall plan.  The helicopters have the additional advantage that samples could be cached away in a "safe place" away from Perseverance, then carried back to the lander where the Mars Ascent Vehicle will be loaded.  There's no mention of the detail of how many grams of rocks can be moved by the helicopters and how many grams or ounces the system can return to Earth.

A conceptual sketch from NASA/JPL-CalTech, showing a helicopter, Perseverance, and the ESA Mars lander on the bottom row, and the ESA's Earth Return orbiter, left, and NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle top right.  The upper left corner picture appears to be a gibbous Earth, but Earth couldn't possibly appear that big from Mars.  I'll write that off to someone at JPL-CalTech being overly artistic.

The current plan is for the two space agencies to get together for a design review meeting and decide on the final details.  Launch looks to be in the 2028/2029 Mars launch window, leading to the ESA Mars lander arriving six to eight months later, and the rocks to arrive back on Earth by 2033. 

EDIT 1101AM 7/29/22:  Corrected the link to Ars Technica.  Thanks to commenter Sam for pointing it out.


  1. Here's hoping for success! Lots of moving parts involved...

  2. Try this link:

  3. Gah! My fault - didn't double check the link. Thanks much!!