CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA is launching two more mini-helicopters to Mars as part of its effort to bring Martian rocks and soil samples back to Earth.
According to the plan announced Wednesday, NASA’s Perseverance rover will do double duty and carry the cache to the rocket that will launch them off the Red Planet in a decade.
Perseverance has already collected 11 samples and further rock drilling is planned. The newest sample, a sedimentary rock, holds the greatest promise of containing possible evidence of ancient Martian life, said Arizona State University’s Meenakshi Wadhwa, chief scientist for the recovery effort.
There’s “a diversity of material already in the bag, so to speak, and really excited about the potential to bring it back,” she said.
If Perseverance fails, the two helicopters built and launched later this decade will load the samples onto the rocket instead.
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The helicopters will be modeled on the success of NASA’s Ingenuity, which has completed 29 flights since arriving with Perseverance on Mars early last year. The chopper weighs only 4 pounds (1.8 kg). Newer versions would have wheels and grapple arms.
NASA officials say Perseverance’s impressive performance on Mars prompted them to scrap plans to launch a separate rover.
Jeff Gramling, director of NASA’s Mars Sample Return Program, said the revised route was simpler. Each helicopter will be designed to lift one sample tube at a time, performing multiple round trips.
“We are confident that we can rely on Perseverance to bring the samples back and we have added the helicopters as a backup,” Gramling said.
NASA is collaborating with the European Space Agency on the recovery mission. If all goes as planned, as many as 30 samples would take off from Mars in 2031 and arrive on Earth in 2033. Laboratory analysis is needed to see if a sample contains signs of microbial life that may have existed on Mars a while ago. billions of years ago when water flowed over the planet.
As for the ground-based ExoMars rover, it cannot be remodeled to help retrieve these samples, said David Parker, director of human and robotics exploration for ESA. It was returned to storage after Russia and Europe severed ties with the project due to the war in Ukraine. Russia was supposed to provide the rocket ride.
A decision on when the rover can still launch to Mars later this decade won’t come until late fall, Parker said.