NASA’s Shock New Plans To Fly Helicopters To Mars In 2027 As Historic $5.3 Billion Mission Changes Tack

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NASA is sending two helicopters to Mars—but no new rover—as part of a historic round-trip from Earth to Mars and back again to go collect rock samples.

In the 17 months since it landed on Mars the Perseverance rover has collected 11 scientifically compelling rock core samples and one atmospheric sample.

Once back on Earth they will help scientists establish a geological record crucial in understanding Mars’s environmental evolution and possibly its prebiotic chemistry and biology.

In short, it may reveal traces of ancient life.

Buoyed by the incredible success of its little Ingenuity drone that’s now completed a staggering 29 flights, NASA said today that it will begin its much-anticipated Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission in 2027 with the first-ever samples of rocks from an alien planet due back on Earth in 2033.

NASA revealed that it will launch an Earth Return Orbiter in fall 2027, a Sample Retrieval Lander in summer 2028, and that those samples would arrive back on Earth in 2033.

The new mission architecture reveals a few exciting design changes.

The Sample Retrieval Lander platform will carry two “sample recovery helicopters,” which will go help Perseverance collect the samples the rover itself has been busy assembling.

By then Perseverance will have been on the Martian surface for almost a decade. The old plan had been to send an all-new rover.

On the Sample Retrieval Lander platform will also be a small rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle. The new plan is for Perseverance to return to the platform and place sealed sample tubes into a container in the nose cone of the rocket. To do that it will use a Sample Transfer Arm being built by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The Mars Ascent Vehicle will then launch to meet-up with the Earth Return Orbiter high above the Martian surface.

The Earth Return Orbiter would be the first spaceship ever to go from Earth to Mars—or any planet—and then back to Earth again.

The use of both Perseverance and two new helicopters for this mission is a big change of plan by NASA.

“The conceptual design phase is when every facet of a mission plan gets put under a microscope,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “There are some significant and advantageous changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance’s recent successes at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Mars helicopter.”

The mission, which will go collect the samples left strewn across Jezero Crater by NASA’s Perseverance rover, was recently given the green light by the Decadal Survey.

In its report it recommended that the MSR was of “the highest scientific priority of NASA’s robotic exploration efforts this decade” and of “fundamental strategic importance to NASA, U.S. leadership in planetary science, and international cooperation.”

However, that report also said MSR shouldn’t cost more than 20% more than the $5.3 billion allotted to it. This new plan—which cuts the need for a brand new rover—could help keep costs as low as possible, though it does require a lot of confidence in Perseverance’s longevity.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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