Chinese boffins pitch quadcopter for Mars sample return mission

In the race for the Red Planet, NASA is falling behind

Inspired by the success of NASA's Ingenuity Mars helicopter, Chinese boffins are proposing a more capable extraterrestrial flier for a planned Mars sample return mission. 

A recent paper from researchers at China's Harbin Institute of Technology proposes using a quadcopter for Martian operations, as opposed to coaxial design of Ingenuity. The team said four rotors will equip the craft, dubbed MarsBird-VII, to carry up to 100g of Martian rock to a nearby lander. 

"The Mars quadcopter should be able to collect a rock sample with a mass of 100g and a diameter of about 40mm within a radius of 500m around the lander at once," the researchers wrote in their paper. The lander, which China has proposed to be stationary, would need the quadcopter to pick up Martian regolith that hadn't been contaminated with the lander's rockets. 


An artist's rendering of how MarsBird-VII would operate - Click to enlarge

A robot arm attached to the quadcopter, would collect the samples and deliver them back to the the lander. This would then use its own claw to put them in an ascent vehicle before being blasted back into orbit before returning to Earth. 

Chinese officials suggested using some sort of autonomous aircraft for sample collection earlier this year. MarsBird-VII is just a concept at this point, the team notes, and hasn't even been properly tested in a simulated Martian environment. 

Who will be the first to touch Martian dirt?

Getting Martian rocks and dirt back to Earth may just be the next frontier in the space race, this time with China taking Russia's place as NASA's rival. 

Things aren't looking too good for American efforts, though: As we reported in September, parts of NASA's own Mars sample return mission have been delayed after an Independent Review Board determined it has a whole host of problems. 

NASA is facing massive cost overruns and increased scrutiny from elected officials over its plans for a mission to collect samples of Martian rock, some of which have already been collected by Perseverance and are awaiting pickup. According to the September review, NASA needs an extra $8 to $9 billion dollars right now and another $1 billion per year, to get the mission on track for a 2030 launch. 

China, meanwhile, has plans to launch its Tianwen-3 mission in 2028 and return samples from Mars by 2031 using a dual-launch strategy sending two rockets to the Red Planet.

One would be loaded with the successor to the country's defunct Zhurong lander, whatever version of MarsBird or other helicopter is decided on, and an ascent vehicle. The other rocket would remain in orbit, rendezvous with the samples vehicle in orbit, transfer cargo, and then head back to Earth. 

Meanwhile, NASA's plans don't have Perseverance's rock samples returning to Earth until 2033, but that was the plan in summer 2022 - things have changed a lot since then.

Sandra Connelly, NASA deputy associate administrator for science, said last month that the agency is slowing its work on the Mars sample return mission due to budgetary uncertainties. 

In classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't" fashion, Congressional representatives from California have reportedly complained to NASA that the Mars sample return slowdown is "short-sighted and misguided," and will cost jobs in California. 

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is doing much of the work for the endeavor, is based in California.

"China is rapidly expanding its space program with … a stated intention of being the first to return samples from Mars," a letter sent by a bipartisan group to NASA reportedly said. "This short-sighted and misguided decision by NASA will cost hundreds of jobs and a decade of lost science." ®

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