NASA Reveals Europa Clipper Cost Growth, Mars Sample Return Replan

NASA Reveals Europa Clipper Cost Growth, Mars Sample Return Replan

NASA revealed significant changes to two of its flagship planetary science missions at today’s Space Science Week meeting at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The cost for Europa Clipper, which will gather data as it makes multiple swingbys of Jupiter’s moon Europa, has grown from $4.25 billion to $5 billion. Separately, NASA and ESA are replanning the Mars Sample Return mission. Two landers are needed instead of one to retrieve samples from the surface of Mars and boost them into orbit for their trip back to Earth. The launches will be in 2028 instead of 2026.

Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, told members of the Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board that Europa Clipper remains on track for launch in 2024 after successfully clearing Key Decision Point-D (KDP-D) in March. That marks the transition from Phase C, final design and fabrication into Phase D, assembly, integration and test, and launch. It is followed by Phase E, operations and sustainment.

Artist’s illustration of Europa Clipper flying over Europa, with Jupiter in the background. Credit: NASA

Many planetary scientists believe a liquid ocean exists underneath Europa’s icy surface with plumes spewing through cracks in the ice into space. The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter and repeatedly swing by Europa close enough to sample the plumes and make detailed studies of the surface.

Where there is water, there is a chance that life could exist. Former Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is convinced there is life on Europa and made it his mission to force NASA to send both an orbiter and a lander there to investigate. NASA had no plans or budget to execute such a mission, but as chairman of  the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA during the 114th and 115th Congresses, Culberson was in a position to add money year after year and direct NASA, in the text of the law not just report language, to do it. He would often say the Europa missions were the only ones where NASA would be breaking the law if it did not comply.

NASA is complying on the orbiter, but not yet the lander, arguing it needs data from the first mission before designing the second. Culberson and his Senate counterparts also wrote into law that the spacecraft had to be launched on the Space Launch System even though a commercial alternative would be substantially cheaper. The White House Office of Management and Budget insisted that using a commercial launcher would save more than $1.5 billion. Congress finally relented not because of cost, but hardware compatibility issues and Clipper will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

The mission is still very expensive. Zurbuchen said today “we changed the agency baseline commitment from $4.25 billion to $5 billion” and “make no mistake, we’re nowhere near out of the woods on this one yet. Integration and test is where things usually get really, really hard.”

Presentation by NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen at Space Science Week, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, March 21, 2022.

About $100 million of the increase is for additional reserves in Phase D, and he also mentioned about $100 million due to COVID, but the bulk is in Phase E to have a career and talent pipeline program recognizing the long timeframe of the mission. “I have no joy in telling you that we need more money for Phase E” but “if I had to choose” which phase to add money for “it would be Phase E because that’s where we do the science.”

Zurbuchen also shared news about the Mars Sample Return mission that surely will increase its cost, but he did not say how much.

NASA and ESA are partners in the multi-spacecraft mission to bring samples of Mars back to Earth for analysis. NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is already on Mars collecting samples that it is leaving on the surface in cigar-shaped tubes. A Sample Fetch Rover will be sent to collect them and take them to a Mars Ascent Vehicle — a rocket — that will shoot them into Martian orbit where they will be transferred to an Earth Return Orbiter for the trip back to Earth.

Initially the plan was for the fetch rover and ascent vehicle to be launched together in 2026, and the Earth Return Orbiter in 2027.  But Zurbuchen decided to convene an Independent Review Board in 2020 to get an impartial assessment of the plan by outside experts. The Board cautioned that 2026 was “not achieveable” with 2028 a more realistic date, and that the “program’s schedule and cost are not aligned with its scope.”

Consequently, NASA now has replanned the mission with two landers — one each for the fetch rover and ascent vehicle — instead of one. Both landers will launch in 2028. The Earth Return Orbiter will still launch in 2027. The samples will get back to Earth in 2033.

Presentation by NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen at Space Science Week, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, March 21, 2022.
Presentation by NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen at Space Science Week, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, March 21, 2022.

The program is still in its early stages with the KDP-B review scheduled for June. That will mark the transition from Phase A, concept and technology development, to Phase B, preliminary design and technology completion.

NASA and ESA signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together on Mars Sample Return in October 2020. NASA built the Perseverance rover, the first mission in this campaign. ESA is building the fetch rover and Earth Return Orbiter. NASA is building the ascent vehicle, and the sample capture mechanism and Earth reentry capsule for the Earth Return Orbiter.

Separate from the Mars Sample Return mission, ESA planned to launch a Mars rover, ExoMars 2022, in partnership with Russia this September. It canceled those plans after Russia invaded Ukraine and is now looking at alternatives for getting its rover to Mars. Whether that will have any impact on the Mars Sample Return planning is unknown at this point.

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