NASA will no longer send an extra rover to Mars for sample collection. Instead, two helicopters will be provided in case Perseverance is unable to perform the process.
NASA detailed on Wednesday how it will return around 30 Martian rock samples to Earth in 2033, a plan that now includes sending two new helicopters to the Red Planet.
The Perseverance rover , which landed on Mars a year and a half ago, has already collected 11 rock samples.
But bringing them back to Earth so they can be studied in depth for traces of ancient life turns out to be a complex mission, requiring multiple steps.
Changes in plans for Mars
Until now, NASA had planned to send another rover to Mars, which would collect the samples collected by Perseverance to take them to a lander. On this module there would, in turn, be a minirocket ready to put the samples in the orbit of the red planet in 2031.
But NASA decided that the second rover will not exist. Instead, Perseverance itself, which has shown good performance, will approach the rocket, called the Mars Ascent Vehicle.
Samples will be retrieved from Perseverance using a robotic arm built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and integrated into the lander, as previously planned.
But as a precaution, a workaround has been provided in case the Perseverance is by then immobilized.
The lander, which should take off from Earth in the summer of 2028 and reach Mars in mid-2030, will have two small helicopters attached to it, in addition to the mini-rocket and the robotic arm.
On Mars there is already a helicopter called Ingenuity. Its performance has exceeded all expectations: it has made 29 flights instead of the five originally planned.
The two new helicopters will be slightly heavier, equipped with wheels to be able to move on the ground and a small arm that will allow them to retrieve the samples, which can weigh up to 150 grams.
In this case, the samples would be dropped by Perseverance to the ground, retrieved by helicopters, and deposited on the lander within a few days.
There they would also be picked up by the robotic arm, which can extend up to two meters, to be placed in the mini-rocket.
The samples will wrestling eventually be flown to an orbiter previously positioned around Mars , which is scheduled to blast off from Earth in 2027.
And then home
Once the payload is recovered, this orbiter will return to Earth to land in the Utah desert in 2033.
Perseverance has a total of 43 tubes to store samples. It will soon deposit a dozen on Martian soil to form an emergency stockpile. The other 30 will be destined to be recovered.