Martian hits reshape sample return plans

Martian hits reshape sample return plans

For as long as humans have been sending probes to Mars, there has been a desire to return samples of rock, soil and atmosphere to Earth for further analysis. But the physics of such a mission are particularly demanding: a vehicle that could land on the Martian surface, collect samples, and then launch back into orbit because the return to Earth would be massive and prohibitive with our current technology.

Mars sample return tube

Instead, NASA and its international partners have been working to spread the cost and complexity of the mission among several different vehicles. In fact, the first phase of the program is underway.

The Perseverance The rover has been collecting samples and storing them in 15cm (6in) titanium tubes since landing on the Red Planet in February 2021. Considerable progress has also been made on the Mars Ascent Vehicle ( MAV) that will transport the samples to the surface and orbit around the planet, where they will finally be picked up by another vehicle that will finally return them to Earth.

But there are still big gaps in the overall plan. Chief among them is how the samples should be transferred to the MAV. Previously, the European Space Agency (ESA) was to contribute a small “research rover” that collected sample tubes left by Perseverance and take them to the MAV launch site.

But in a recent press release, NASA has announced that those plans have changed significantly, at least in part thanks to the incredible success of the agency’s current missions to Mars.

Reliable Rovers

Originally, the NASA-built Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) was supposed to have delivered both the MAV and the ESA rover to the surface in one go. But in 2020, an Independent Review Board expressed concern about the size and mass of this vehicle, specifically that it would require the development of a new Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) system and therefore not tested They argued that the mobile MAV and ESA should land separately using a variation of the EDL technology developed for the curiosity i Perseverance rovers

Instead, NASA and ESA have agreed to simply scrap the rover entirely and be done with it Perseverance deliver the samples to the SRL itself. Based on the longevity of curiositywhich has now spent a decade on the Martian surface, there is an excellent possibility that this Perseverance it will still be operational in 2031 when SRL is expected to arrive.

Try out the robotic arm of the Sample Retrieval Lander.

From an outsider’s perspective, it might seem like this should have been the plan all along. After all, if the samples are already on a working mobile, why do you need a second mobile to come and retrieve them? But note that when this plan was originally conceived, curiosity and his twin Perseverance they still had to prove themselves. Having the smaller and less complex ESA research rover available was considered a reasonable precaution, so that samples could be retrieved even if Perseverance he himself had failed or gotten stuck.

But there is something deceptive about it. The robotic arm on Perseverance who handles the sample tubes lacks the dexterity to actually load them into the MAV. The best it will be able to do is drop them to the surface close enough to SRL for its ESA-developed 2.5-meter (8.2-foot) sample transfer arm to pick them up and store them. It won’t be the most glamorous installment in the history of interplanetary exploration, but there’s something to be said for keeping things simple.

Backup by helicopter

While the new plan uses Perseverance as the primary means of transporting samples, the success of the overall mission is too important not to build some redundancy into the plan. So instead of a second rover, NASA has decided to go for a bold approach that would have been considered science fiction just a few years ago: it should Perseverance unable to make it to the SRL for whatever reason, a couple of helicopters derived from the blockbuster design Wit will try to recover them.

Helicopters based on Wit provide a contingency plan.

Little information has been released about how these new helicopters will differ from their predecessor, other than that they will now feature wheels mounted on the end of the landing legs and a miniature robotic arm capable of capturing a single sample tube . The addition of wheels means the helicopters don’t have to land directly on the tube, they just have to get close enough to roll into it. After the sample tube has been collected from the surface, the helicopter will fly it back and drop it by the SRL.

while Wit has far exceeded all expectations for its performance and longevity, the proposed modifications to the aircraft and this ambitious new mission present new challenges and risks. Sending a pair of helicopters provides another layer of redundancy, and it’s likely that the second helicopter won’t even be activated until the first one has demonstrated its ability to retrieve a sample, giving the controllers of the mission a valuable “go over” if something goes wrong. .

Of course it should Perseverance You don’t need any help to complete your mission, you can be sure that NASA will have some scientifically valuable task that the helicopter pair can come up with. After all, you don’t drive hardware 100 million miles no use it

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