Mars Sample Return Scientifically Critical, But Eye-Poppingly Expensive

Mars Sample Return Scientifically Critical, But Eye-Poppingly Expensive

An Independent Review Board assessing the status of the NASA-ESA Mars Sample Return mission has concluded that although the mission has tremendous scientific value, it is poorly managed and designed with unrealistic budget and schedule expectations. The program has a “near zero” probability of meeting the existing launch readiness dates and would cost $8-9.6 billion, requiring more than $1 billion per year for at least three years beginning in FY2025. On the good news front, the IRB suggests alternatives that would still achieve the end result, but later in the 2030s and they may cost more.

Returning samples of Mars to Earth for detailed analysis has been the holy grail for many planetary scientists for decades.  The two most recent planetary science Decadal Surveys from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine rated it as the top priority. Prohibitive costs and technical challenges are what’s standing in the way.

The collection of samples is already underway on the Mars surface. NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is filling 43 cigar-shaped tubes with Mars material. Some were left at a “depot” at the Jezero Crater on Mars while others will remain aboard the rover as it explores new places.

An annotated version of the portrait captured by NASA’s Perseverance shows the location of the 10 sample tubes in the depot. The “Amalik” sample closest to the rover was about 10 feet (3 meters) away; the “Mageik” and “Malay” samples farthest away were approximately 197 feet (60 meters) from the rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

The question is how to get them back to Earth.

NASA and ESA are partners in the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission and are still iterating the answer to that question.

At the moment, the idea is to launch a NASA Sample Return Lander (SRL) equipped with an ESA robotic arm and two NASA helicopters modeled after the very successful Ingenuity helicopter that recently completed its 59th flight on the Red Planet (the goal was five). The Perseverance rover would transport the samples to the lander and/or the heliocopters would retrieve those left at the depot and, using ESA’s robotic arm, transfer them into a NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV).

Illustration of the spacecraft for the current Mars Sample Return campaign architecture. From left: NASA Ingenuity-class helicopter, ESA Earth Return Orbiter, NASA Perseverance rover, NASA lander with ESA robotic arm, and NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The MAV would lift off from the surface and rendezvous with an ESA Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) in orbit around Mars. The samples would transfer from the MAV into a NASA Capture, Containment and Return System (CCRS) canister on the ERO that is equipped with appropriate safeguards to ensure no biological contamination of Earth when the samples arrive here. ESA’s ERO would bring them back to Earth. The SRL/MAV and the ERO/CCRS would launch in 2027 and 2028.

It’s complicated.  And expensive.

NASA officials have been declining to answer questions about the cost until this independent review was completed, but the FY2024 request is almost $1 billion. Scientists in other space science fields are alarmed that MSR could consume a huge amount of available resources leaving them with little to nothing.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is worried about the same thing.  In its report on NASA’s FY2024 funding bill, the committee said that if the program can’t stay within the $5.3 billion estimate in the most recent Decadal Survey, it should be cancelled.

The IRB leaves no doubt that $5.3 billion is not realistic, nor are the 2027/2028 launch readiness dates. Their estimate is $8.0-9.6 billion for the current design or as much as $11 billion for proposed alternatives. The earliest launch date for the SRL/MAV or ERO/CCRS is 2030.

Source: IRB-2 report.

This actually is the second IRB to step back and take an unbiased, holistic look at MSR. The first in 2020, chaired by former Orbital ATK President David Thompson, expressed a lot of concern about NASA’s plan at that time.

Much of what they said is echoed in the IRB-2 report made public today, chaired by retired NASA Mars expert Orlando Figueroa. The slide deck indicates it was presented to NASA on September 1.

Four slides in the report summarize key findings and recommendations.

It’s clear money isn’t the only problem. The IRB sharply criticized NASA’s management structure for MSR and the rest of its Mars program as well as how NASA is communicating — or not — the importance of getting the samples back. “The societal, technological, and scientific significance of MSR makes it a mission of the highest importance in NASA’s long-term exploration strategy, and this is not being communicated consistently and clearly with the public and stakeholders.”

NASA tasked Sandra Connelly, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, with leading a team to review the IRB’s report.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA manages the MSR program for NASA. JPL is a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology. In a post on X (formerly known as Twitter), JPL Director Laurie Leshin expressed optimism about finding an executable path foward.

A NASA public affairs specialist tells there will not be a media briefing about this IRB report. Nor was there a press release. NASA posted the report to one of its many websites and notified the public through social media. By contrast, NASA held two media briefings for the IRB that assessed the Psyche mission last year, when the report was initially released and after the IRB conducted a follow-up review several months later, and issued press releases each time.


Note: this article has been updated.

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