Monday, April 15, 2024

The Situation Looks Bad For Mars Sample Return Mission

I hesitate to use the phrase that the Mars Sample Return (MSR) Mission is cancelled because the source doesn't use that exact, heavy word. Instead, it seems that whatever flies won't look like the missions proposed up to now. 

First, some necessary background. 

I've been trying to follow developments on this mission since 2021; that linked article is in May of '21 so one month short of three years ago, and has a rendering of how the mission was conceived of during MSR's planning. Then Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter started wandering and flying around on Mars, changing everyone's concepts of how a sample return mission could work. Which led the artist's concept to change to look like this.

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, top row left of center, and NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle top row 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. 

Last September, NASA received a report from an independent review board saying that the Mars Sample Return Mission was unworkable in its current form and wasn't feasible on the schedule and costs they were working under.  They recommended the issues be studied. The studies were disclosed today, April 15th, and the agency said everything but the exact word “cancelled”, ending instead with saying they will seek “out of the box” ideas in a bid to reduce the costs and shorten the schedule for returning samples from Mars.

In an April 15 briefing, agency officials announced they would solicit proposals from NASA centers and from industry on “innovative designs” to reshape its Mars Sample Return (MSR) effort after an internal review confirmed the ballooning costs of the overall program.

That review found that the current program would cost between $8 billion and $11 billion, the same range offered by an independent assessment completed last September. To fit that into the overall planetary science budget without affecting other programs would delay the return of samples from the early 2030s to 2040.

“The bottom line is that $11 billion is too expensive and not returning samples until 2040 is unacceptably too long,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the briefing.

As we've said before, those samples to be returned (at least some of them) are on Perseverance RFN - Right Now - and the talk is to conduct an $11 billion mission that returns the samples 17 years from now? 

NASA announced starting over in opening a Request For Proposal immediately - April 16 - with the proposals due May 17. After that, NASA will offer 90 day contracts to the proposals they think the most of. They're specifically looking for alternative approaches for the overall MSR architecture or specific elements of it, like the sample retrieval lander or Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) rocket that would place the collected samples into orbit.

Bill Nelson added, “I’m expecting to get everybody in high gear and that we have the answers to this by this fall.” 

NASA seems to be trying to walk the fine line between innovative technologies and those that require a lot of development time (and money). 

“What we’re looking for is heritage,” said Nicola Fox, NASA associate administrator for science. “What we’re hoping is that we’ll be able to get back to some more traditional, tried-and-true architectures, things that do not require huge technological leaps.”

One example she gave is technology that enables a smaller, and presumably less expensive, MAV. The studies, she said, will seek proposals that could return an unspecified number of samples, and not necessarily all the roughly 30 samples that the Perseverance rover will have on board when it completes its work.

The Perseverance  rover landed on Mars in February of '21, so it's reasonable to ask how long it can survive. A plan discussed at the meeting today would have Perseverance complete its exploration of terrain outside Jezero Crater and return to the crater floor in 2028. Once there, it would go into a “quiescent state” until the sample retrieval lander arrived. 

NASA officials said at the briefing and town hall that there was no discussion of suspending or even canceling MSR, citing its high ranking in the last two planetary science decadal survey among flagship-class missions. “Returning these samples from Mars is such a huge priority for us. That is why we’re doing all of these things,” Fox said.


  1. I have a plan for them. It costs less but may take a bit more time. They can wait for SpaceX to get to Mars and send the samples back on one of the first Starships to return to Earth. The majority of the cost will be born by SpaceX. Maybe NASA can throw in a few hundred million dollars to speed up SpaceX's early Mars missions.

    1. In reading related to this, I saw that Bill Nelson commented about the samples being returned in 2040, something like, "by then, our focus will be landing astronauts on Mars." I hope it's before that, but given the focus on the 40s, I think there's a good chance SpaceX will be there by then. Or the Chinese. They care less about losing people along the way than SpaceX does.

    2. Bill, SpaceX *immediately* entered my out-of-the-box thinking. They can hitch a ride on one of the test shots going to Mars - the Starship can "drop off" the return craft, it can land (unless, of course, the Starship is going to land anyway...) and the return ship and collection robot can be kicked out of the bay (using a model of the elevator on the Lunar Starship, no?) - everybody wins, right?

      Man, the "Not Invented Here" syndrome is alive and well at NASA and causing The Stoopid to reign supreme over there.

      Just give the Money to SpaceX and they'll provide the transportation at about one tenth the cost and twice to three times as fast.


  2. The US lacks focus. We are leaderless as nation. If we lose the high ground, we will lose everything. Just as losing the borders leads to losing everything. If Americans dont wake up fast and change the leadership everywhere, We will all be speaking Chinese.