Picture of the Ingenuity helicopter.

How helicopters are shaking up the hunt for life on Mars

NASA’s Perseverance rover recently collected tantalizing rocks that may hold clues to ancient aliens—even as engineers make big changes to their plans for getting those samples to Earth.

NASA engineers add thermal protection to the body of the Ingenuity helicopter inside a vacuum chamber at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, ahead of the spacecraft's launch to Mars. Since its first flight in April 2021, Ingenuity has completed 29 flights and covered more than four miles on the red planet.
Photograph by NASA/JPL-Caltech

The search for signs of ancient Martian life is getting an airborne assist.

The ultimate goal, aside from discovering whether Mars was ever an inhabited world, is to bring back a cache of pristine rocks from the red planet’s surface. To do that, NASA and the European Space Agency are collaborating on the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission, which aims to deliver Mars rocks to Earth in the early 2030s.

But it won’t be cheap, or easy: The endeavor, originally estimated to cost at least $7 billion, will rely on a series of spacecraft to achieve its goal—a fleet that now will include a pair of helicopters. These Martian flyers will be modeled after a prototype helicopter called Ingenuity, which arrived on Mars in February 2021 with NASA’s Perseverance rover and has proven to be a giant success.

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