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NASA Delays Mars Sample Return Plans, Seeks New Ideas

APR 16, 2024
The agency is trying to both control costs and keep the sample return date from slipping to 2040.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture
msr-sample-brightness-adjusted400x800.jpg

A rock sample dropped by the Perseverance rover on Mars.

(NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS)

On Monday, NASA released its response to last year’s independent review of its Mars Sample Return mission. Rather than settle on a well-defined mission design, the agency has left the specifics undetermined while pushing back the target launch date for its Sample Return Lander from 2028 to 2035, with samples expected to arrive back on Earth in 2040. NASA anticipates that it expects a revised mission architecture would cost the agency between $8 billion and $11 billion, in line with the findings of the independent review.

Under its new schedule, design work on the lander and the ascent vehicle will proceed at a “low level” for a time in parallel with a review of ideas solicited from outside the agency that could help lower costs or shorten the mission timeline. NASA indicated it plans to spend $310 million on MSR in fiscal year 2024, just above the $300 million minimum set by Congress, and that it will only request $200 million for fiscal year 2025. In a statement, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson remarked, “The bottom line is, an $11 billion budget is too expensive, and a 2040 return date is too far away.”

While NASA is seeking “out-of-the-box options” for the mission, particularly the ascent vehicle, the agency has identified some expected features of revised mission plans. For instance, it anticipates that the Perseverance rover, which is currently caching samples on Mars, will return to the floor of the Jezero Crater once it completes sample collection and enter a “quiescent” state to await the arrival of the lander, and that it may resume science investigations after delivering samples.

Plans no longer call for two sample-retrieval helicopters to be carried on the lander, though NASA has left open the possibility that one could still be included for redundancy. The lander itself is now set to be powered by a radioisotope power source rather than solar power to increase its resilience. The European Space Agency’s component of the project, a spacecraft that will make a round trip back to Earth, would launch in 2030 and remain in Mars orbit until NASA’s component of the mission transfers its samples to the spacecraft.

This news brief originally appeared in FYI’s newsletter for the week of April 15.

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