On Wednesday, NASA presented a polished plan for its sample return program that aims to bring rock collected by the Perseverance rover to the surface of Mars. At a media event earlier today, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, unveiled a new architecture that includes options that weren’t available a year ago.
The US space agency is planning a Mars sample return program with the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring samples for investigation with advanced equipment that cannot be sent to the Red Planet.
NASA and the European Space Agency ease complications
The agency says the new concept is much simpler than the old one because it eliminates previously planned requirements under the mission for rover and lander vehicles. Under the advanced plan, the European Space Agency will first launch the orbiter back to Earth in the fall of 2027, followed by a sample recovery lander in the summer of 2028. If everything goes according to schedule, the sample will reach Earth in 2033.
The Sample Recovery Vehicle is a NASA contribution, which will carry the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) and the Sample Transport Arm built by the European Space Agency. The sample transfer arm will transfer samples from Perseverance to the MAV rocket, which will launch from the landing module to the Earth Return Vehicle. After this the orbiter will begin its journey back to Earth with the rocks.
NASA has indicated that the primary means of transporting the samples will be the Persistence Wagon. Interestingly, instead of combining cruisers and landings, the agency added two specialized recovery helicopters as backup. The helicopter is based on the Ingenuity design, which landed on Mars continuously and managed to fly 29 times and lasted for over a year.
NASA says that the sample return program requirements review has been completed and the conceptual design phase is nearing completion. The program will move into the design phase early next October, and development of the technology and engineering model is expected to be completed within 12 months. Notably, the first part of the mission was already underway as Perseverance collected 11 core rock samples and one atmosphere sample.