To support the campaign to return samples from Mars, multiple robots were to team up to ferry to Earth select samples that are now being gathered by NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover.
Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech

There appears to be a Mars Sample Return strategy change underway.

At the crux of the discussion is perhaps dropping the European Space Agency Fetch Rover. Toss in for good measure, lots of politics.

Artist’s concept of the ESA Sample Fetch Rover approaching sample tubes
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While the decision about the Fetch Rover apparently has not been made, ace reporter, Jonathan Amos, a BBC science correspondent, caught up with European Space Agency (ESA) human and robotic exploration director, David Parker.

Parker advised that due to the overall health of NASA’s Perseverance rover, its status would allow the joint NASA/ESA Mars Sample Return project to “streamline the program and remove the fetch rover,” Amos reports.

Departure of Mars Ascent Vehicle carrying Mars samples.
Credit: NASA


Lower-risk strategy

Indeed, it has been recognized that given the way Perseverance has held up, a lower-risk strategy is probably to have the samples be held inside its sample rack, never put them on the ground, and have Perseverance personally deliver them to the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). 

If that path is followed, then the Fetch Rover might be considered a contingency vehicle. It could be used only if there is a problem with the other rover, which means that under the current planning that Mars machinery could be flown to the Red Planet and not used.

Signs of ancient life on Mars could be preserved in layered rocks like those shown in this illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover in Jezero crater.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Contingency mode

All in all, both NASA and ESA planners are in contingency mode, appraising pathways to minimize risk to the Mars Sample Return undertaking. How the space agencies will sort this out is to be determined.

Inside Outer Space has reached out to the Fetch Rover team, an Airbus UK-assembled endeavor. No word as yet.

Meanwhile, work on the MAV continues. It would be packaged within NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander, another central part of the campaign, with the all-in-one spacecraft (lander and MAV) touching down near or in Jezero Crater. That’s the spot where the Perseverance rover is already busily gathering Mars specimens, some of which are destined to be shot back to Earth in the early 2030’s.

Perseverance rover photo of Ingenuity micro-helicopter taken by Left Mastcam-Z Camera. Image acquired on April 18, 2021 (Sol 57).
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Helicopters to fetch samples?

Recent language from the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Bill called for investigation of using two “Ingenuity-class helicopters” to fetch samples.

“The Committee is aware that the Mars Sample Return mission is expected to reach Key Decision Point-B later this year and directs NASA to brief the Committee on expected changes to cost, schedule and management challenges revealed during that decisional process, including NASA’s efforts to address such challenges,” the bill notes.

“As NASA conducts Mars Sample Return formulation studies to determine mission architecture and science requirements, the Committee directs NASA to provide a report not later than 180 days after enactment of this Act assessing the feasibility and cost of using more than one Ingenuity-class Mars Helicopter. The report should examine whether using more than one Ingenuity-class Mars Helicopter could increase redundancy and ensure NASA has a capability to return samples by augmenting the Ingenuity helicopter design to add a sample retrieval capability.”

Next up on Mars? One idea is this Mars aerial craft – the Hexacopter.
Credit: Theodore Tzanetos/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Refined and solidified

Once again, what decisions have been made are surely to be discussed in a NASA-hosted media teleconference at 11 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, July 27, to discuss the architecture for its Mars Sample Return campaign.

NASA and ESA recently held a systems requirement review as part of the Mars Sample Return campaign’s conceptual design phase — a phase when the architecture is refined and solidified.

Next week’s briefing will present the architecture proposal that is expected to be finalized in September 2022.


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