NASA Tests its Next-Generation Mars Helicopter Blades

Artist illustration of three solar-powered Mars helicopters from NASA: Ingenuity (upper right), along with the proposed design for Sample Recovery Helicopter to be use on the future NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return Mission (foreground) and a concept for a future Science Helicopter (upper center). (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

While NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter continues to break records for both airspeed and altitude while it explores Jezero Crater on the Red Planet, NASA engineers back on Earth are hard at work testing carbon fiber blades for next-generation Mars helicopters that could exceed the performance of Ingenuity on future missions to Mars, specifically with the planned Mars Sample Return mission that NASA hopes to accomplish sometime in the 2030s.

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Ariane 6 Fires its Engines, Simulating a Flight to Space

The Ariane 6 rocket test firing on its launch pad at the European Spaceport in French Guiana. Credit: ESA

Since 2010, the European aerospace manufacturer ArianeGroup has been developing the Ariane 6 launch vehicle, a next-generation rocket for the European Space Agency (ESA). This vehicle will replace the older Ariane 5 model, offering reduced launch costs while increasing the number of launches per year. In recent years, the ArianeGrouip has been putting the rocket through its paces to prepare it for its first launch, which is currently scheduled for 2024. This past week, on Wednesday, November 23rd, the Ariane 6 underwent its biggest test to date as ground controllers conducted a full-scale dress rehearsal.

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What’s Going on With the Mars Sample Return Mission?

The ESA/NASA Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions ever devised. Image Credit: ESA

Anybody with a modicum of intellectual curiosity is looking forward to the NASA/ESA Mars Sample Return Mission. NASA’s Perseverance rover is busily collecting and caching samples for eventual return to Earth. While the technical and engineering challenges in getting those samples into scientists’ hands here on Earth are formidable, budgeting and funding might be the mission’s biggest headaches.

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China Wants to Retrieve a Sample of Mars by 2028

This image was taken by a small camera that was jettisoned from China's Tianwen-1 spacecraft to photograph the spacecraft in orbit above the Martian north pole. Credit: CNSA/PEC

China continues to take great strides as part of its goal to become a superpower in space and a direct competitor with NASA. In addition to its proposed expansion of the Tiangong space station and the creation of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), China is also planning on sending crewed missions to Mars in the coming decade. In preparation for the arrival of taikonauts on the Red Planet, China is gearing up to return samples of Martian soil and rock to Earth roughly two years ahead of the proposed NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return (MSR).

This mission will be the third in the China National Space Administration’s (CNSA) Tianwen program (Tianwen-3) and will consist of a pair of launches in 2028 that will return samples to Earth in July 2031. According to a new study recently published in the journal Chinese Science Bulletin, Chinese scientists announced that they have developed a new numerical model to simulate the atmospheric environment of Mars. Known as the Global Open Planetary atmospheric model for Mars (aka. GoPlanet-Mars, or GoMars), this model offers research support in preparation for the Tianwen-3 mission.

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This Mess of Boulders Was Deposited by an Ancient River on Mars

The Mastcam-Z imager on NASA's Perseverance rover captured a series of images on July 6 that were stitched together to show a field of boulders deposited in Jezero Crater by a fast-moving ancient river. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Since the Viking 1 and 2 missions visited Mars in 1976, scientists have been confronted with mounting evidence that Mars once had flowing water on its surface. The images collected by the twin Viking landers and orbiters showed clear signs of ancient flow channels, alluvial deposits, and weathered rocks. Thanks to the dozens of additional orbiters, landers, and rovers sent that have been sent there since scientists have been getting a clearer picture of what Mars once looked like. At the end of this journey, they hope to find evidence (if there’s any to be found) that Mars once supported life and still does today.

The latest evidence of Mars’ warmer watery past comes to us courtesy of NASA’s Perseverance rover, which continues to explore the Jezero Crater and obtain samples for the first Mars sample-return mission. On Friday, June 23rd, the rover obtained its 20th sample, which was drilled from a rocky outcropping known as “Emerald Lake.” Named “Otis Peak,” this sample is part of an outcropping formed by mineral deposits transported by an ancient river and could contain invaluable geological information about the many places these minerals came from.

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We Can Only Bring 30 Samples of Mars Back to Earth. How Do We Decide?

NASA’s Perseverance rover puts its robotic arm to work around a rocky outcrop called “Skinner Ridge” in Mars’ Jezero Crater. Perseverance gathered an important sample of sedimentary rock here. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The Mars Sample Return Mission is one of the most ambitious missions ever conceived. Though the samples won’t be returned to Earth until 2033 at the earliest, the Perseverance Rover is busy collecting them right now. Ideally, Perseverance could gather as many samples as we like and ship them all back to Earth. But of course, that’s not possible.

There are limitations, and this means that choosing which samples to return to Earth is an extremely critical task.

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Perseverance is Turning Into That Friend That's Always Picking Up Rocks

This image shows the rock core from “Berea” inside inside the drill of NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

On Thursday, March 30th, NASA’s Perseverance rover drilled and stored the first rock core sample of its newest science campaign. This is the sixteenth sample the rover has taken as part of the ambitious Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, a collaborative effort between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to retrieve Perseverance’s samples and bring them back to Earth. Once they arrive (expected to happen by 2033), scientists will analyze them using state-of-the-art machinery too heavy and cumbersome to send to Mars as part of a robotic mission.

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Europe Will be Building the Transfer Arm for the Mars Sample Return Mission

The concept for a Mars lander with a Sample Transfer Arm to retrieve and bring samples of Mars dirt and rocks to Earth. Credit: ESA.

Now that the Perseverance rover has dropped off ten regolith and rock sample tubes for a future sample return mission to retrieve, the plans for such a mission are coming together. The mission is a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency, and ESA has agreed to build a 2.5-meter-long robotic arm to pick up tubes and then transfer them to a rocket for the first-ever Mars samples to be brought to Earth.

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Perseverance Takes a Selfie to Show off Some of its Samples

The Perseverance Mars rover took this selfie with several of the 10 sample tubes it deposited on the Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

One of the main jobs for the Perseverance Mars rover past few weeks has been collecting carefully selected samples of Mars rock and soil. These samples have been placed and sealed in special sample tubes and left in well-identified places so that a future sample return mission can collect them and bring the Martian samples back to Earth.

Perseverance has now dropped 10 sample tubes and to celebrate, it took a couple of selfies with several of the sample tubes visible in the designated ‘sample depot’ it is creating within an area of Jezero Crater. The area of the depot is nicknamed “Three Forks.”

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Perseverance Places its First Sample on the Surface of Mars. One Day This Will be in the Hands of Scientists on Earth

Perseverance drops a load of rock on Mars for pickup later.
The Mars Perseverance Rover deposited a tube filled with a chalk-size core of igneous rock, taken from a region of Mars’ Jezero Crater, for later pickup by the joint ESA-NASA Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In the not-too-distant future, a planetary scientist will open up a tube of rocks that came from Mars. Thanks to the Perseverance rover, there are at least 17 of these rock and regolith samples, just waiting for analysis on Earth. To get them, the rover has covered about 13 kilometers on its Mars geology field trip.

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