The Current Mars Sample Return Mission isn’t Going to Work. NASA is Going Back to the Drawing Board

Mars Sample Return mission

Human spaceflight is not the easiest of enterprises. NASA have let us know that their plans for the Mars Sample Return Mission have changed. The original plan was to work with ESA to collect samples from Perseverance and return them to Earth by 2031. Alas like many things, costs were increasing and timescales were slipping and with the budget challenges, NASA has had to rework their plan. Administrator Bill Nelson has now shared a simpler, less expensive and less risk alternative.

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Perseverance is Keeping Track of the Big Picture While it’s Exploring Mars

Illustration of Perseverance on Mars

It’s always a real benefit to have scientists on the ground, able to use the wealth of their experience and ingenuity to ‘think on their feet’.  It is therefore always quite challenging to use space probes that to a degree need to be autonomous. This is certainly true of the NASA Perseverance Rover that has been drilling core samples that will one day (hopefully) be returned to Earth as part of the Mars Sample Return mission. Until then, a team of Geologists have developed a technique to calculate the orientation of the core samples to help with future analysis. 

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Grabbing Samples from the Surface of Mars

ESA's Sample Return Mission arm

As if the Mars Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity Drone were not exciting enough then the next step in this audacious mission takes it to a whole new level. Mars Sample Return Mission is to follow along, collect and return the samples collected by Perseverance back to Earth. However the status of Mars Sample Return is uncertain as engineers are still working on technology to retrieve the samples. The current challenge is the gripper arm that will collect the samples and stow them safely and securely before transportation without damaging them. 

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Perseverance Gives Us One Last Look at the Damaged Ingenuity Helicopter

Image of the final resting place of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.
Ingenuity helicopter. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU / Simeon Schmauß

Well I consider that a success; the first aircraft on another world surpassed all expectations. Ingenuity, the helicopter that has been buzzing around on Mars has finally reached the end of its life after a total of 72 flights on the red planet. In a wonderful piece of computer imagery, Simeon Schmauß took a number of images of Ingeniuty from Perseverance and stiched them together into a mosaic and upscaled to provide a human eye view. 

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NASA's Mars Helicopter Had an Unscheduled Landing, But Flew Again

This view of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter was generated using data collected by the Mastcam-Z instrument aboard the agency’s Perseverance Mars rover on Aug. 2, 2023, the 871st Martian day, or sol, of the mission, one day before the rotorcraft’s 54th flight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The Ingenuity helicopter continues to explore the landscape around Jezero Crater on Mars, now more than 800 days into its original 30-day demonstration mission. Recently, Ingenuity completed its 54th flight on the Red Planet. However, things haven’t gone exactly to plan the past several weeks.

On its 53rd fight on July 22, 2023, the helicopter cut the flight short after one of its warnings was triggered, implementing the “LAND_NOW” protocol. Ingenuity should have flown for 136 seconds but was only in the air for 74 seconds before performing an emergency landing.

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Perseverance has Found a ‘Cat Hair’ in its Drill Chuck. What is it?

NASA's Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its SHERLOC WATSON camera, located on the turret at the end of the rover's robotic arm. This image was acquired on Aug. 4, 2022 (Sol 517). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

After each use of one of the tools at the end of the Perseverance rover’s arm, the mission’s engineering team always takes images of the tool to make sure everything is still in working order.

Last week the rover’s drill was used to take a core sample from a rock – the 12th such sample that has now been stored and sealed for possible future retrieval in a proposed sample return mission. The team then took images of the drill and sample collection system components. In those images, two small pieces of debris were visible: a small object on the coring bit (which is stored in the bit carousel) and a small hair-like object on the drill chuck.

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Perseverance is Searching for the Perfect Landing Spot for the Upcoming Sample Return Mission

NASA’s car-sized Perseverance (Percy) Mars rover has been had at work carrying out its science campaign in Jezero Crater on the Red Planet, but it’s equally been busy scouting for sites for NASA’s planned Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, which is a joint mission with the European Space Agency. One of the many tasks for Percy has been to collect sample tubes that MSR will eventually return to Earth for further analysis, having collected its ninth sample on July 6. This most recent sample is especially intriguing as it’s the first taken from the Jezero’s delta itself, which is believed to be one of the most ideal locations to search for past life on the Red Planet.

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Mars Rovers Will Need to Dig Deeper If They Want to Find Evidence of Life

The search for life—even ancient life—on Mars is trickier than we thought. In a recent study published in the journal Astrobiology, researchers have determined that NASA’s Mars Perseverance (Percy) Rover will have to dig two meters (6.6 feet) beneath the Martian surface in order to find traces of ancient life. This is because the surface of Mars is constantly bombarded with extreme levels of solar radiation that scientists hypothesize would quickly degrade small molecules such as amino acids. The reason for this extreme level of radiation is due to the absence of a magnetic field, which scientists believe was stripped away billions of years ago when the planet’s liquid outer core ceased to produce the dynamo that created the field.

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Long-Range Photo of Ingenuity Taken by Perseverance’s SuperCam Instrument

NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/Kevin M. Gill

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is a stunning achievement of engineering, design, and, well, ingenuity. The dual-rotor craft can be seen taking off and landing in this remarkable video, taken by the Mastcam-Z, an imager aboard the Perseverance Mars Rover. Mastcam-Z is a tremendous scientific instrument, but this article’s truly outstanding lead image was taken with Perseverance’s SuperCam instrument.

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This is What Perseverance’s Landing Site Looked Like Billions of Years Ago. See Why it’s Such a Compelling Target?

This illustration shows Jezero Crater — the landing site of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover — as it may have looked billions of years go on Mars, when it was a lake. An inlet and outlet are also visible on either side of the lake. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Today is a milestone in NASA’s Perseverance mission to Mars. At 1:40 pm Pacific time today, the rover will have traveled 235.4 million km (146.3 million miles). That means the spacecraft is halfway to Mars and its rendezvous with Jezero Crater. The spacecraft isn’t traveling in a straight line, and the planets are moving, so it’s not equidistant to both planets.

“Although we’re halfway into the distance we need to travel to Mars, the rover is not halfway between the two worlds,” Kangas explained. “In straight-line distance, Earth is 26.6 million miles [42.7 million kilometers] behind Perseverance and Mars is 17.9 million miles [28.8 million kilometers] in front.”

But today’s still a good time to take another look at Jezero Crater, and why NASA chose it as the mission’s target.

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