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NASA Wants Its Space Rocks Stat, Announces Update for Mars Sample Return Mission

NASA's planned Mars Sample Return mission is in trouble and the agency is asking for help.

By Cassidy Ward

In 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders, and Jim Lovell were First to the Moon during NASA’s Apollo 8 mission. It was the first time we had sent people to the vicinity of another world and brought them back home. Three missions later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon. Successfully designing, building, and using machines capable of jumping in and out of gravity wells is a triumph of engineering, even when your destination is only a quarter of a million miles away.

Getting to Mars, the next nearest world, adds several levels of complexity. It’s quite a bit farther away, about 34 million miles away at its closest point, it has an (admittedly thin) atmosphere to contend with, and it has a stronger gravitational influence than the Moon. Over the last several decades we’ve sent a number of robotic roamers to the Red Planet, but bringing something back has remained beyond our grasp. NASA is hoping to change that.

The agency’s Perseverance rover, affectionately called Percy, landed in February 2021. Its Martian stomping ground is Jezero crater, a rust-colored landscape which was once home to an alien lake. Percy went to Jezero because it’s littered with interesting geology and might hide evidence of ancient microscopic Martians. Part of Percy’s mission has involved gathering rock samples from a variety of locales and sequestering them for later retrieval and return to Earth. We were supposed to get those samples back in 2031, but ballooning costs and delays are threatening the mission. Now, NASA is soliciting outside help to bring our Mars rocks home.

Too Expensive and Too Late, NASA Seeks Help for Mars Sample Return Mission

The original plan was for Perseverance to stash its cache of rock samples someplace where the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission would be able to find them. Sometime over the next few years, a rocket would have launched carrying a suite of spacecraft designed and operated by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Once on Mars, the craft would have landed and deployed some robotic helpers, either ground-based rovers or Martian helicopters like Ingenuity, to pick up the samples and ferry them back to the Mars Ascent Vehicle. From there, they would have launched into orbit and then back toward Earth.

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Sample Return Mission

NASA was aiming for a mission budget between $5 billion and $7 billion, but getting rocks imported from Mars doesn’t come cheap. Two independent reviews of the mission have been conducted, the second of which was completed in September 2023, and they concluded the mission would be later and more expensive than originally thought. Today, we’re looking at a cost between $8 billion and $11 billion, and a return date no earlier than 2040. NASA administrator Bill Nelson isn’t satisfied with that price tag or that timeline, so NASA is looking to outside partners for innovative ideas.

“Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions NASA has ever undertaken. The bottom line is, an $11 billion budget is too expensive, and a 2040 return date is too far away. Safely landing and collecting the samples, launching a rocket with the samples off another planet — which has never been done before — and safely transporting the samples more than 33 million miles (53 million kilometers) back to Earth is no small task. We need to look outside the box to find a way ahead that is both affordable and returns samples in a reasonable time frame,” Nelson said, during a NASA announcement.

Mars rock samples could tell us about the ancient geological history of Mars and reveal whether the Red Planet was ever home to living organisms. They could also inform future crewed missions to Mars, by showing us the most interesting places to visit and offering up questions we haven’t even thought to ask yet. With that in mind, NASA doesn’t want to scrap the mission, calling it crucial to the agency’s future plans.

To that end, NASA has released a competitive solicitation for studies looking at mission alternatives including but not limited to a smaller ascent vehicle bringing home a lower number of samples. NASA is interested in entirely novel mission designs but they’re also looking at missions that incorporate elements of the original MSR mission plan or the Artemis Program. Only for-profit U.S. organizations are eligible, and NASA is giving them a month to get their ideas together. The deadline for proposals is May 17, 2024.

Watch First to the Moon streaming on Peacock.

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