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Here's what's going on with Mars Sample Return

Basically, it's complicated

NASA made a big announcement about Mars this week. Here’s what you need to know about the status of the Mars Sample Return mission, and why this mission is so important.

Mars Sample Return is just what it sounds like -- bringing back rock and soil samples from Mars. Every 10 years, different science disciplines conduct what’s called a Decadal Survey, which basically outlines the highest scientific priorities for the next 10 years. For planetary science, the highest priority for two decades has been Mars Sample Return. It’s a big deal to this community.

Jezero Crater, credit: NASA

That’s why the Mars Perseverance rover has been collecting and storing samples since it landed on the red planet. It’s in Jezero Crater which scientists think is an ancient river delta — which means these samples could contain evidence of ancient microbial life.

Nile River delta, credit: NASA

Now, Perseverance is gathering Martian rock and dust samples using its drill, cataloging these samples, and storing some of them on the Martian surface, some on the rover itself. The idea is that we’re going to send a spacecraft to Mars to retrieve these samples. It’s a complicated mission to be sure, with ambitious goals, and that’s why, unsurprisingly, it’s in trouble.

Credit: NASA

Budget cuts are making the original plan unworkable

I’ve reviewed NASA’s budget issues previously, but basically the agency has been dealing with what is essentially budget cuts over the past two years. As the head of the science mission directorate Nicky Fox said at the briefing, Congress’s spending cuts have put NASA in a difficult position where MSR in its original form isn’t feasible.

Because of that, many of us have wondered whether this mission will even happen anymore. An independent review board report back in September made it clear that under the planned mission architecture, it would cost around $11 billion, which NASA cannot afford, and the samples wouldn’t get back until the 2040s, which is much later than they’d like.

This was a complicated mission from the outset, and as the Independent Review Board report made clear, neither the schedule nor the budget were realistic for MSR.

The plan: It’s complicated

Basically the original architecture involved, first of all, the Perseverance rover — at least that part is done and on the red planet. Second, the Sample Retrieval Lander was supposed to launch from Earth in 2028, with arrival on Mars scheduled for 2030. It would land, and then deploy the Sample Retrieval Helicopters (which would be based on Mars Ingenuity) to collect the samples that Perseverance has prepared and stored around Mars. The rover would also return to Jezero Crater to deliver samples to the Sample Retrieval Lander. 

Credit: NASA

The plan is to bring a rocket along with the lander, and once all the samples were safely stored, the rocket (called the Mars Ascent Vehicle) would take off in the early 2030s. It would meet up with the European Space Agency’s Earth Return Orbiter that would capture and secure the samples and return them to Earth.

So, to review -- we’re talking about launching a rocket, sending it to Mars, landing this spacecraft on Mars, deploying a lander and two helicopters to collect samples from multiple sites, ensuring  storing them properly and safely for the medium term, making sure Perseverance is still functional by that point and can travel to meet this lander, loading it all up, launching a rocket from another planet — something we have never done robotically before — and doing a fully robotic rendezvous in Mars orbit, and then having that ESA spacecraft leave Mars orbit, return home, and land on Earth with the samples safe and intact.

Credit: ESA

It’s certainly a cool idea, but it’s unbelievably complicated, and thus it’s not a surprise that the Independent Review Board found it unrealistic given the budget and time frame.

So now what? 

NASA’s confusing announcement this week

Well, today NASA announced that, basically, they’re going back to the drawing board with Mars Sample Return. They made it clear that the mission is still a huge priority for the agency, but that they’d like to accomplish it with an $5 to $7 billion budget, they want it to happen in the 2030s, and while they recognize they may not be able to retrieve all of the samples.  They also don’t want to cannibalize the budget from other science missions, like Venus’s VERITAS or Dragonfly.

I can’t recall something like this happening with a robotic science mission before, but NASA is basically sending out a call to commercial space and industry, other NASA centers, basically anyone who has an idea of how we can accomplish this mission, balancing budget and timeframe, with risk posture. The solicitation will go out within the next week, and basically by late fall or winter of 2024, NASA hopes to have a path forward.

Credit: NASA

The idea is they want out of the box proposals on how to accomplish this mission. They’re not necessarily looking for leaps forward in technology. Instead, they want to go to tried and true tech to lower the risk, lower the cost, and reduce the time frame necessary for designing, testing, and building. 

This is really interesting for a few reasons. 

First, it shows how much of a priority Mars Sample Return is for the agency. If you’re wondering why we care, well, basically everything we know about the moon, we know through either theoretical modeling or direct examination of moon rocks brought back on the Apollo missions. To understand how a habitable planet develops, to understand whether there’s life out there, to understand how a lush, water-filled planet like ancient Mars becomes what we see today — we need to directly examine Mars rocks by humans in a lab. To do that we have to get the samples back. 

Perseverance sample tube, credit: NASA

Second, it brings up the question of — what were they looking for in the first place? While these kind of budget issues and delays happen relatively often with space programs — look at Artemis, which is supposed to return humans to the moon, or JWST, which was notoriously late and over budget. It’s relatively expected for these larger missions. So what went so wrong here that they need to go back to the drawing board?

Is NASA hoping for a miracle?

It’s not like Mars Sample Return is a new idea. NASA has been talking about this since the early 1970s. There have been countless mission architectures, budget cuts, program cancellations, re-evaluations — we’ve been through the ringer on Mars sample return missions. For this particular mission, the design of a lot of this technology isn’t clear. 

A report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General made clear that not having a stable design for a lot of these pieces is impacting the ability to create a realistic schedule and cost estimate. The report specifically highlights the Capture, Containment, and Return system which is designed to capture the sample container in orbit, and create a secondary seal for it as well as sterilize it before returning the sample container to Earth — the design for this is behind schedule and over budget. Because there are so many parts to this mission, a delay in one can knock everything off schedule and increase the budget significantly.

NASA OIG report

It seems as though NASA was hoping that some sort of new tech would make this easier, and it hasn’t — so now they’re looking at the more old, reliable methods and technology, which they probably should have been doing in the first place. And now they’re having to start over, basically, trying to redo the mission architecture to save what they can. More than one reporter during this press conference referred to NASA’s call for solicitations on MSR as basically NASA hoping for a miracle, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

Let me make clear, I really hope Mars Sample Return happens. It’s a cool program, the science coming out of it could be amazing — this could be how we uncover the first alien life. I can’t stress enough the incredible potential of MSR. But also, I’m very curious to see what happens with this, as I am not overly optimistic NASA can find a way to both cut the costs and cut the timeline when they’re having to start over so late into this.