NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently trundling around the red planet, collecting samples and beaming data back to Earth. NASA plans to launch new missions in the next few years in partnership with the ESA aimed at collecting those samples and returning them to Earth. The agency has just completed a major review of the Mars Sample Return Program, and there are some significant changes (and not the first). NASA is canceling the Sample Fetch Rover, and it’s adding a pair of helicopters based on Ingenuity’s design.
In addition to its raft of cameras and scientific instruments, the Perseverance rover has a Sample Caching System designed to store rock cores in ultra-sterile containers. NASA had a little trouble with this mechanism early on, but the rover has gone on to successfully stock up on Martian rocks. NASA only had a vague outline of the plan to return those samples to Earth when Perseverance touched down on Mars in 2021, but we’re getting closer to a final blueprint for this ambitious mission.
NASA says updated projections of Perseverance’s lifespan mean that the sample return mission won’t need a new rover at all. Instead, Perseverance will be the primary means of transporting samples to the Mars Ascent Vehicle, but the lander will also include a pair of sample recovery helicopters that build on the design of Ingenuity. NASA initially expected that aircraft, the first ever to fly on another planet, would only last a few months before its off-the-shelf hardware failed. And yet, it has flown 29 times and survived a year beyond the original estimate. The new helicopters will act as a secondary method of retrieving samples from the surface.
Getting pristine Martian samples to Earth opens up a range of scientific study that isn’t possible with a robotic mission on Mars. So far, Perseverance has picked up 11 potentially interesting samples, and it has room for a few dozen more.
After the samples are loaded on the Capture, Containment, and Return System, the Mars Ascent Vehicle will send them into orbit. There, the payload will rendezvous with the ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter — no changes are recommended for this part of the mission. NASA expects to launch the Sample Retrieval Lander in 2028, and the ESA’s orbiter will leave Earth (temporarily) in 2027. The samples should arrive on Earth in 2033, if all goes as planned. The timing could still shift dramatically if either NASA or the ESA miss their launch windows. China also recently announced that it hopes to beat NASA and the ESA to the punch.