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Six-Wheeled Rover Sets the Stage on Mars for NASA’s Future Spacecraft

NASA’s car-sized rover has been extremely busy for the past few months. Perseverance reached the ancient river delta region on Mars and has started collecting crucial samples that might one day be returned to Earth. To that end, the rover has been searching for the ideal “landing strip” that will allow future spacecraft to safely land on the Martian surface and collect the sample tubes left behind by Perseverance.
Proposed landing site for the Mars Sample Return lander 6 photos
Image shows tube in Perseverance's drill with rock samplePerseverance collects 9th sample on MarsPerseverance collects 9th sample on MarsPerseverance collects 9th sample on MarsPerseverance collects 9th sample on Mars
NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are planning to return to Earth samples collected by Perseverance through a future mission called the Mars Sample Return Campaign. It will involve multiple spacecraft and robotic systems that will work together to bring select tubes to Earth. This will allow researchers to study them using cutting-edge lab equipment that would be far too large to be transported to Mars.

So far, Perseverance has stored in its belly nine samples. On July 6, the rover managed to collect material from Jezero Crater’s ancient river delta. This region is thought to hold crucial clues about Mars’ wet past, so the samples collected from the delta might show signs of a previous life. For the Mars Sample Return (MSR) Campaign, Perseverance is expected to drop several sample tubes in strategic areas. Future spacecraft will come and collect the tubes and will take them back home for further investigation.

Currently, the car-sized rover is searching for the ideal landing spots for MSR operations. Engineers are looking for landing sites that are close to one another, as well as spots that are close to the delta. Moreover, they prefer a flat terrain – this will ensure that the spacecraft can land safely without having to face any obstructions or rocky formations.

Overall, the team’s goal is to find a flat landing spot “with a 200-ft (60-meter) radius.” They call it the “landing strip” since, from space, it looks like a flat runway. While researchers have seen images from orbit that show which zones fit the criteria, looking through Perseverace’s eyes can tell them exactly what they need to know.

“Now we have some up-close-and-personal shots of the landing strip that indicate we were right on the money. The landing strip will more than likely make our shortlist of potential landing and caching sites for MSR,” said Al Chen, Mars Sample Return Systems Engineering & Integration manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory JPL.

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