The Future of Mars Exploration Belongs to Helicopters

NASA's Mars Helicopters: Present, Future, and Proposed: A family portrait of Mars helicopters - Ingenuity, Sample Recovery Helicopter, and a future Mars Science Helicopter concept. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Even though there’s no firm date for a Mars sample return mission, the Perseverance rover is busy collecting rock samples and caching them for retrieval. We’ve known of the future Mars sample return mission for a while now, and as time goes on, we’re learning more details.

The latest development concerns helicopters. With Ingenuity’s success, NASA has decided that the sample return mission will take two helicopters.

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A Look Inside One of Perseverance’s Core Holes

A look inside the drill hole from the Perseverance rover's core sample drill. This image is a "focus merge" combination of available non-partial images. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kevin M. Gill.

Here’s one of the best views you’ll ever see of the insides of a rock on Mars. The hole was made by the Perseverance rover’s drill, a rotary percussive drill designed to extract rock core samples from the surface of Mars. After the sample was taken, Perseverance rover acquired this image using its SHERLOC WATSON camera to take a close-up view of the hole.

This is such a clear image because image editing expert Kevin Gill used a technique called focus merge to get the best view possible. A “focus merge” uses a series of images taken at different focuses, stacks them up and uses whichever pixels are the sharpest. You can see a larger version on Kevin’s Flickr page.

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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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This is Where the Mars Sample Return Mission Could be Landing

This image was acquired based on a hopeful scenario in which the Perseverance rover has an extended mission or two and travels outside of Jezero Crater to explore terrains to the west. In this scenario, the decision could be made to land the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission here to pick up samples collected by Perseverance. MSR will probably not land here, but acquisition of a HiRISE stereo pair provides the data needed to assess the risk of landing. The cutout shows that there are diverse colors and textures, so this would be an interesting region to explore. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/UArizona

NASA’s Perseverance Rover is busy exploring Jezero Crater on Mars. Part of its mission is to collect samples for retrieval by a future mission. NASA and the ESA haven’t determined where the sample return mission will land yet.

That depends on the Perseverance mission and how it spends the rest of its time on Mars. But we know of one possible—albeit ambitious—landing spot: just west of Jezero Crater.

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NASA is Already Designing Hardware for a Mars Sample Return Mission

Testing is key to the success of any space mission, and the more complex the mission, the more testing is required to complete it successfully.  The Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission is one of the most ambitious missions ever undertaken.  It started with the Perseverance rover, which is currently exploring Jezero crater while occasionally stopping to fill sample bottles with interesting material.  But the more impressive engineering feat is what happens next. NASA plans to launch a combination lander, rover, and ascent rocket that will land on the Martian surface, pick up the sample containers Perseverance has left behind, sterilize them, launch them back into space, and then return them to Earth.  

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Perseverance is About to Collect the First Sample on Mars That Could Eventually be Returned to Earth

Artist's impression of the Perseverance rover on Mars. Credit: NASA-JPL

On Feb. 18th, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed within the Jezero Crater on Mars. Like its predecessor, Curiosity, a fellow member of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP), the goal of Perseverance is to seek out evidence of possible life on Mars (past and present). A key part of this mission will be the first sample return ever performed on Mars, where samples obtained by Perseverance will be placed in a cache for later retrieval and return to Earth.

For the past five months, mission controllers at NASA have been driving the rover further from where it landed (Octavia E. Butler Landing Site) and conducting test flights with the Ingenuity helicopter. NASA is now in the midst of making final preparations for Perseverance to collect its first sample of Martian rock. This historic first is expected to begin by the end of the month or by early August and will culminate with the return of the samples to Earth by 2031.

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