On the heels of the samples successfully returned from Asteroid Bennu
yesterday, it brought to mind a story that appeared earlier in the week about
the plans to bring samples from Mars to Earth in a future mission called the
Mars Sample Return mission. The samples are being collected now and
stored in titanium tubes ("the size of a large hot dog") onboard the
Perseverance rover currently exploring in the Jezero crater alongside the
Ingenuity helicopter. The future mission would find Perseverance,
retrieve the samples and return them to Earth. It has been in the
planning stages for
at least a couple of years.
The story, from Thursday, Sept. 21, is that an independent review of the program was called by NASA and the reviewers concluded that the program is unworkable in its current form.
A conceptual sketch from NASA/JPL-CalTech, showing a helicopter, Perseverance, and the ESA Mars lander on the bottom row, and the ESA's Earth Return orbiter, left, and NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle top right. The upper left corner picture appears to be a gibbous Earth, but Earth couldn't possibly appear that big from Mars. I'll write that off to someone at JPL-CalTech being overly artistic.
NASA had been planning to launch the critical elements of its Mars Sample Return mission, or MSR, as soon as 2028, with a total budget for the program of $4.4 billion. The independent review board's report, which was released publicly on Thursday, concludes that both this timeline and budget are wildly unrealistic.
The review went on to say that the very earliest the mission could launch from Earth is 2030, and this opportunity would only be possible with a total budget of $8 billion to $11 billion.
The MSR mission is a "deep-space exploration priority for NASA," it said, but then went on to say it has had unrealistic budget and schedule expectations since it started, as well as an "unwieldy" program organization and would end up hurting or ruining other deep-space missions. Further, this isn't the first time this sort of summary has been talked about. A report published by Ars Technica about three months ago also raised serious questions about costs and schedule.
In addition to being a priority for NASA, it's a priority for the entire planetary science community as well as being a joint US/European Space Agency mission.
"MSR represents the critical next step in a strategic program of Mars Exploration spanning the past four decades," the report states. "US and European orbiters and US rovers have found promising sites where life might once have existed."
A sample return mission has been a high priority of the scientific community for decades, including being the most highly requested mission in the last two surveys of the National Academies Decadal Survey of Planetary Science report that informs space policy decisions made by Congress and the president.
The reviewers also noted the importance of NASA and the European Space Agency leading the world in space exploration as a hallmark of soft power. China has previously announced plans to launch its "Tianwen-3" sample return mission to Mars as early as 2028 or 2030, which represents a clear challenge to US scientific leadership in Mars exploration.
All in all the report makes more than 20 findings and recommendations to NASA and JPL that its current plans for the Mars Sample Return mission are broken.
NASA has responded to the report's release by announcing its own review of the review, saying that this team will make a recommendation by March 2024 regarding a path forward for Mars Sample Return within a balanced overall science program.