Mars 2020

The Current Mars Sample Return Mission isn’t Going to Work. NASA is Going Back to the Drawing Board

Human spaceflight is not the easiest of enterprises. NASA have let us know that their plans for the Mars Sample Return Mission have changed. The original plan was to work with ESA to collect samples from Perseverance and return them to Earth by 2031. Alas like many things, costs were increasing and timescales were slipping and with the budget challenges, NASA has had to rework their plan. Administrator Bill Nelson has now shared a simpler, less expensive and less risk alternative.

The Mars Perseverance Rover departed Earth as part of the Mars 2020 mission on 30 July 2020. It’s no quick nip round the corner to get to the red planet so it arrived just under 7 months later on 18 February 2021. Among its many tasks was to collect rock samples, package them up into tubes and deposit them ready for collection by another future mission to return them to Earth. The samples are to be analysed in Earth based laboratories to help us understand the formation of the Solar System, to look for signs of ancient life on Mars and to enable future human exploration. So far so good but enter NASAs budgetary challenges. 

Illustration of Perseverance on Mars

In response to these budget challenges and to an independent review of the Mars Sample Return mission, NASA have had to get creative. The mission design has been updated to include a simpler, less risky approach and at lower cost. The timescales for the sample return have also now been pushed out to return the samples by 2040 instead of the original target date 9 years earlier. 

The team at NASA are under no illusions as to the complexity of the task at hand. To land safely on Mars is just the beginning. The samples have to be collected and safely stowed away, then the rocket must take off from Mars and return safely to Earth! This has never been done before without human intervention – think Apollo with astronauts bringing several kilograms of lunar samples back for analysis. 

At the time of writing this report, NASA do not yet have a way to reduce the costs yet maintain a high level of confidence of success. NASA has asked multiple teams to work together to come up with a plan that takes an innovative approach with where possible, proven technology. They are to work with other industries on proposals to find ways that the mission can be delivered to the cost challenges, with less complexity and by bringing the delivery of the samples back to the 2030’s. 

Nicky Fox, NASA’s associate administrator from Washington said “NASA does visionary science – and returning diverse, scientifically-relevant samples from Mars is a key priority.” Clearly it’s a challenge, not only the logistics of the mission itself but to bring it in given the constraints facing the team is no mean feat. One thing NASA has on its side is their can-do attitude. It’s an organisation that never fails to impress with ingenious solutions. I have no doubt that, by the end of the 2039 we will see the samples returned to Earth in another first for interplanetary exploration. 

Source : NASA Sets Path to Return Mars Samples, Seeks Innovative Designs

Mark Thompson

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