How do you collect soil samples left on the surface of another planet by a traveling robot? That is the challenge NASA is currently facing. It is being considered to deploy several drones for this purpose, which in terms of design are derived from the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. The space agency explains this in a budget proposal.
The Mars Sample Return Mission
The Mars rover Perseverance has been roaming the surface of the red planet for a year and a half. The Mars mission is special for several reasons: not only did the Mars rover bring the first interplanetary drone, but the robot also takes soil samples at various locations to transfer them to Earth for further scientific analysis.
The only question is how best to collect these soil samples in a few years. Not only do the samples have to be launched from Mars towards Earth, they also have to be collected first. Perseverance has no storage on board and leaves the soil samples scattered on the Mars surface along the route taken.
The Mars Sample Return Mission, which NASA will carry out together with ESA, aims to pick up the soil samples and bring them back to Earth. This requires a hugely complex (and therefore expensive) operation. It will be an operation that will take a decade or more and will involve billions of dollars of taxpayers' money. Congress is therefore looking with suspicion at the upcoming budget proposal from NASA; nobody wants a bottomless pit.
Drones collect samples
To date, driving ground robots have been used to collect soil samples. But it now appears that NASA is considering having the retrieval of the soil samples partly or wholly carried out by drones. The space agency is more than happy with the positive results achieved with the Mars helicopter Ingenuity. And that success has not gone unnoticed by members of Congress, who must vote on allocating budgets to NASA.
The idea is that multiple Ingenuity-class drones could be deployed to pick up the different soil samples. That does mean that a mechanism to pick up the monsters still needs to be developed, not to mention the design of the return pod in which the monsters must be left before they are launched into space. NASA now wants to form a team to address these challenges.
Ingenuity has completed 29 flights since arriving on Mars, flying farther and longer than the team had ever anticipated. Although Ingenuity has been grounded since June this year, partly due to problems with a sensor and a lack of sunlight to charge the batteries, it is assumed that the drone will be able to continue flying later this month.
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