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Space vehicle tests prepare for landing of Mars rock samples in Utah

By Mark Shenefelt - | May 2, 2022
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This screengrab from a NASA video shows a prototype Mars sample retrieval lander just after it was dropped from a helicopter 1,200 feet above the Utah Test and Training Range on Saturday, April 29, 2022.
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This artist's conception shows robot vehicles during an operation to collect rock samples from Mars and take them to Earth to land on the Utah Test and Training Range.
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A NASA photo from the Perseverance rover working to collect rock samples for eventual delivery on Earth at the Utah Test and Training Range.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — NASA engineers are testing a landing system that will bring Mars rock samples to Earth, dropping them on the Utah Test and Training Range.

A series of Mars Sample Return Earth Entry System drop tests conducted March 1-3 at the UTTR were a success, according to a NASA news release last week.

The orbital descent vehicle was outfitted with sensors and dropped from a helicopter at 1,200 feet above ground, giving it time to reach the intended landing speed.

The vehicle, referred to for this testing phase as the Manufacturing Demonstration Unit, “was very stable during descent — it didn’t wobble around a lot, and it landed successfully, in the sense that there was no structural damage and it survived impact as expected,” said Jim Corliss, the return system program’s chief engineer.

The program, being planned by NASA and the European Space Agency, proposes to return samples collected by NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover and land them at UTTR inside the reentry vehicle.

The March drop tests were a follow-up to tests at the UTTR with a smaller, less-detailed unit last year. The vehicle used this time was described as a full-scale unit, 1.25 meters wide, made of fabricated materials.

It’s important for the vehicle to land in a particular orientation, Corliss said, and the drop tests indicated the full-scale vehicle was stable during final descent, landing on its nose as engineers intended.

Further tests will be conducted this year. But Mars rocks won’t be landing in Utah anytime soon. A mission timeline shows the sample return lander and Earth return orbiter will be launched from Earth in 2026 and 2027, respectively. Samples would be returned to Earth in 2031.

The program envisions landing the vehicles at Mars’ Jezero crater, where Perseverance is collecting samples. A sample retriever rover, about the size of a golf cart, will load the samples onto the retrieval lander. The lander then will be loaded onto the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will carry the lander and samples into orbit, for loading into a European Space Agency craft that will take the payload to Earth.

Thomas Mullican, a Hill AFB spokesperson, said the Air Force assisted NASA with the planning, execution and control of the testing. UTTR is managed by Hill and the Air Force.

The $1 billion, 12,500-square-mile UTTR is described by the Air Force as the U.S. military’s only location capable of supporting overland testing of cruise missiles. Crews also conduct air-to-air-combat, air-to-ground inert and live practice bombing, and gunnery training. Other agencies use the UTTR as well, such as when obsolete rocket motors from Northrop Grumman are detonated.

UTTR has a $30 million annual operating budget. About 200 military and civilian personnel are assigned there.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the dates of the testing.


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