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 Finds its Dream Rock

This Martian rock, named Bunsen Peak, contains minerals that formed in the presence of water. On Earth, these water-deposited carbonate minerals are good at preserving ancient organic material. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If there’s a Holy Grail on Mars, it’s probably a specific type of rock: A rock so important that it holds convincing clues to Mars’ ancient habitability.

Perseverance might have just found it.

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Search for Life on Mars Could Level-Up with MARSE Mission Concept

A breakdown of the Mars Astrobiology, Resource, and Science Explorers (MARSE) mission profile and its Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device (SHIELD) system, which could revolutionize how we search for life on Mars by using four rovers at four different landing sites. (Credit: Longo (2024))

A recent study presented at the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) discusses the Mars Astrobiology, Resource, and Science Explorers (MARSE) mission concept and its Simplified High Impact Energy Landing Device (SHIELD), which offers a broader and cheaper method regarding the search for—past or present—life on the Red Planet, specifically by using four rovers at four different landing sites across Mars’ surface instead of just one-for-one. This concept comes as NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance rovers continue to tirelessly explore the surface of Mars at Gale Crater and Jezero Crater, respectively.

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Perseverance Sees Phobos, Deimos and Mercury Passing in Front of the Sun

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover used its Mastcam-Z camera to capture the silhouette of Phobos, the larger of Mars' pair of moons, as it passed in front of the Sun on Feb. 8, 2024, the 1,056th Martian day, or sol, of the mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS/SSI

NASA’s Perseverance rover is busy exploring the Martian surface and collecting samples for eventual return to Earth. But the rover recently took some time to gaze upward and observe the heavens. Using Mastcam-Z, the rover’s primary science camera, Perseverance captured Phobos, Deimos, and Mercury as they transited in front of the Sun.

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Perseverance is Definitely Inside an Ancient Lake on Mars

Aerial view of Jezero Crater on Mars
Jezero Crater on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The search for life on alien worlds has captivated us for hundreds of years. In some respect, the search for life has expanded to the search for water since it is not unreasonable to assume if there is water then there is a good chance there is life too. When NASA selected the landing site for Perseverance, they were looking for such a body of water and settled upon the Jezero Crater. Images from orbiters reveal a crater that looks like it has been filled with water in the past but further investigations were needed to confirm. Now it seems, Perseverance has risen to the challenge. 

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NASA Lost Contact With its Ingenuity Helicopter Briefly, but it's Back

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

Imagine remotely flying a drone or small aircraft from a great distance and loosing contact with it during flight. You’d likely assume the worst, that your aircraft was probably laying in a crashed heap in some remote location.

That’s what engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory went through with the beloved Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, millions of miles away. During a recent quick pop-up flight that was supposed to last just 32 seconds, Ingenuity lost communications before it touched back down. The engineers back on Earth had no idea if the little helicopter landed safely or not.

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Future Mars Helicopters Could Explore Lava Tubes

The circular black features in this 2007 figure are caves formed by the collapse of lava tubes on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/USGS

The exploration of Mars continues, with many nations sending robotic missions to search for evidence of past life and learn more about the evolution of the planet’s geology and climate. As of the penning of the article, there are ten missions exploring the Red Planet, a combination of orbiters, landers, rovers, and one helicopter (Ingenuity). Looking to the future, NASA and other space agencies are eyeing concepts that will allow them to explore farther into the Red Planet, including previously inaccessible places. In particular, there is considerable interest in exploring the stable lava tubes that run beneath the Martian surface.

These tubes may be a treasure trove of scientific discoveries, containing water ice, organic molecules, and maybe even life! Even crewed mission proposals recommend establishing habitats within these tubes, where astronauts would be sheltered from radiation, dust storms, and the extreme conditions on the surface. In a recent study from the University Politehnica Bucuresti (UPB), a team of engineers described how an autonomous Martian Inspection Drone (MID) inspired by the Inginuity helicopter could locate, enter, and study these lava tubes in detail.

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Perseverance Watches a Dust Devil Whirl Past

NASA’s Perseverance rover captured this Martian dust devil moving east to west at a clip of about 12 mph (19 kph) along “Thorofare Ridge” on Aug. 30. The video, which was sped up 20 times, is composed of 21 frames taken four seconds apart. It was enhanced in order to show maximal detail. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On August 30th, 2023, on the 899th Martian day (sol 899) of its mission, NASA’s Perseverance rover spotted a dust devil while exploring the Jezero Crater. The images taken by one of the rover’s Navigation Cameras (NavCams) were used to make a video (shown below), which is composed of 21 frames taken four seconds apart and sped up 20 times. Similar to small, short-lived whirlwinds on Earth, these vertical columns of wind form when pockets of hot air near the surface rise quickly through cooler air above it. By studying them, scientists hope to learn more about Mars’ atmosphere and improve their weather models.

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NASA’s Perseverance Rover is Setting Records on Mars

This image mosaic shows Perseverance's tracks as it made its way through a boulder field called "Snowdrift Peak." The rover's advanced autonomous navigation system guided the machine through the hazardous area in record time. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance Rover has been exploring Mars for more than 900 sols. It’s the most scientifically advanced rover ever built and has opened our eyes wider to Mars and the possibility that it hosted life. The rover’s crowning achievement is preparing samples for eventual return to Earth, an important next step in understanding Mars.

But it can’t do any of its work without moving effectively and efficiently on the Martian surface. And in this regard, Perseverance and its autopilot are setting some serious records.

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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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