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NASA Plans to Send 2 Helicopters to Mars for Rock Return Mission

The more Martian helicopters, the merrier.

Illustration showing the Perseverance rover, a Mars helicopter with wheels, a rocket, an obiter and a lander.
This illustration shows the bounty of robots that would be required to pull off the Mars Sample Return mission.

This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

The Ingenuity helicopter has been so wildly successful on Mars that it's inspired NASA to redesign a future mission to the red planet. The space agency said Wednesday that a pair of Ingenuity-inspired rotorcraft will be a key component of a mission to bring pristine Martian rock samples from the Jezero Crater to Earth.

Originally, the Mars Sample Return project was going to involve a rover that could fetch the samples but would've required its own lander. The change to helicopters was made during the conceptual design phase of the mission. 

"The conceptual design phase is when every facet of a mission plan gets put under a microscope," said Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen. "There are some significant and advantageous changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance's recent successes at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Mars helicopter."

NASA's Perseverance rover is like a rolling geologist. It's gathering up small samples of Mars rocks and stashing them in tubes for safekeeping. The Mars Sample Return mission, or MSR, is a complex and ambitious project that'll involve landing on Mars, picking up the tubes, rocketing them off the planet and delivering them to a spacecraft in orbit. NASA is working with the European Space Agency on the program.

NASA expects Perseverance to still be functioning when the sample return mission arrives. The idea would be to have the rover bring its rock-filled tubes to the Sample Retrieval Lander, which would use a robotic arm (built by ESA) to pick them up for transport. But MSR is too important not to have a backup plan. The helicopters would be able to fetch the samples if needed. 

The small rotorcraft Ingenuity has flown 29 times on Mars since proving with its first aerial adventure in April 2021 that powered, controlled flight was possible on another planet. The sample return choppers would have some design differences, notably the addition of wheels that would let them scoot across the ground to get close to the sample tubes.

With the mission concepts refined, MSR will move into a preliminary design phase starting in October. That yearlong phase will involve technology development work and the creation of prototypes. 

Pulling this off could mean a huge leap forward in our understanding of Mars, and particularly the nagging question of whether the planet ever hosted microbial life. There's a long timeline ahead, but if all goes well, those Mars rocks could be on Earth in 2033.