NASA said Wednesday it would send two more helicopters to Mars in the coming years after its first, the Ingenuity, was far more successful than the scientists hoped.
The space agency unveiled new plans for collecting and returning samples of Martian rock that NASA’s landmark Perseverance rover has been collecting since it landed on the Red Planet last year, as part of a renewed search for alien life.
The new plan will see the rover continue to collect samples from Mars’ Jezero Crater (it’s already gathered 11) and ultimately take them to a lander where they’ll be loaded onto a return rocket. That rocket will blast off into orbit around Mars where it will be collected by the European Space Agency’s Earth Return Orbiter.
Scientists believe the Jezero Crater was once flooded with water and home to an ancient river delta and may have held microbial life in the past.
The two new helicopters will be modeled after the Ingenuity, which has performed 29 flights on Mars and survived a year longer than its planned lifetime, a major achievement due to the difficulty flying in Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere.
“We reached our decision based on new studies and recent achievements at Mars that allowed us to consider options that, frankly, weren’t available to us one year ago or before,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associated administrator of NASA’s science directorate, said Wednesday.
The new helicopters will be based on its design, but include wheels and a small robotic arm to collect sample tubes of Martian rock. They will effectively serve as backup if the Perseverance rover breaks down.
“We have confidence that we can count on Perseverance to bring the samples back and we’ve added the helicopters as a backup means,” Jeff Gramling, the director of NASA’s Mars sample return program, said Wednesday, per The Associated Press.
The new plan is a retooling of NASA’s initial idea to send a secondary rover to Mars and collect the samples from Perseverance. But it was getting too heavy, complicating the agency’s plans. The new effort will “reduce the complexity of future missions and increase probability of success,” NASA said.
The space agency and its European partner plan to launch the Earth Return Orbiter and Sample Retriever Lander in 2027 and 2028. That timeline would see the first samples of Martian rock and atmosphere — as many as 30 — arrive on Earth sometime in 2033.
The samples — the culmination of a multibillion effort and decades of planning — would be revolutionary for scientists studying if life ever existed on the Red Planet.
“Bringing Mars samples to Earth would allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars and would enable future generations to study them,” NASA said Thursday. “Curating the samples on Earth would also allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades.”