NASA Upbeat About Future of Mars Sample Return Despite IRB-2 Report

NASA Upbeat About Future of Mars Sample Return Despite IRB-2 Report

NASA may have received discouraging news from a recent independent review of the Mars Sample Return mission, but key NASA officials and members of the space science community remain upbeat about finding a path forward. NASA is just beginning a detailed examination of the report to determine next steps, but at a meeting today of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, the message was that returning samples from Mars is the highest priority planetary science mission and they will find a way to do it.

Concerned about cost and schedule challenges, NASA established an Independent Review Board (IRB) earlier this year to take an objective look at the MSR program.  It’s the second MSR IRB.  The first in 2020 recommended substantial changes. So did this one, IRB-2, that concluded the program as currently designed is unrealistic.

NASA tasked Sandra Connelly, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), to review IRB-2’s findings and recommendations and determine a path forward. That task is underway with a due date in March 2024, but in the meantime NASA planetary science advisory groups are being asked for their input. The National Academies’ Committee on Planetary Protection (COPP) was briefed yesterday and NASA’s MEPAG today.

Talking to MEPAG, Connelly was upbeat, vowing NASA will determine a “sustainable” MSR program this fiscal year.

Source: Sandra Connelly, Deputy Associate Administrator, NASA Science Mission Directorate, briefing to MEPAG, October 20, 2023.

The first phase of MSR is happening right now. On the surface of Mars, the Perseverance rover is collecting samples in 43 cigar-shaped tubes that someday will get a ride back to Earth where scientists can study them in detail.

The issue is how to get them here. NASA and ESA have been working together for several years on a complex plan to send a lander to Mars equipped with a rocket to shoot the samples into Mars orbit where they will transfer into another spacecraft for the trip back to Earth.

Getting the samples into the rocket — the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) — and from the MAV into the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) are among the tricky parts.  Some of the samples are inside Perseverance and others were deposited on the surface of Mars at the “Three Forks Sample Depot” just in case something goes awry with the rover and it can’t travel to the MAV.

The plan changed substantially in 2022, but the version reviewed by IRB-2 calls for Perseverance to bring the samples to the MAV. As a backup, two tiny helicopters modeled after the very successful Ingenuity helicopter that just completed its 63rd flight on Mars, could fly over to the depot and collect the samples there.

Illustration of the spacecraft for the new 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

A robotic arm on the Sample Return Lander (SRL) will transfer the samples into an Orbiting Sample Container, OS (pronounced Oz), inside MAV. MAV will launch OS into orbit where it will meet up with the ERO and transfer again into a Capture, Containment and Return System (CCRS). The ERO with CCRS will bring the samples back to Earth.

NASA is responsible for the SRL, helicopters, MAV, and CCRS. ESA will provide the robotic arm and ERO.

The program is still in the preliminary design phase. Worried about cost growth and technical challenges, SMD convened a second IRB in April chaired by retired NASA Mars program director Orlando Figueroa.

IRB-2 issued its report last month. The news was not good, criticizing everything from the program’s management structure to unrealistic cost and schedule expectations.

Figueroa briefed COPP yesterday and MEPAG today. Joining him at MEPAG were Connelly, SMD Planetary Science Division (PSD) Director Lori Glaze, MSR Program Director Jeff Gramling, and MSR Program Scientist Michael Meyer. MSR is the top scientific priority of the two most recent planetary science Decadal Surveys from the National Academies. The co-chairs of the 2022 Decadal Survey, Phil Christensen and Robin Canup, were there as well.

All of them stressed the scientific importance of returning samples from Mars. Glaze said NASA is pursuing MSR not because the Decadal Survey identified it as the top priority, but it is the Decadal’s top priority because of its compelling science.

That doesn’t mean MSR is the only important planetary science mission, however, and the Decadal included guidance that it should not exceed 35 percent of PSD’s budget in any given year. There are other important Mars missions, including new orbiters to replace the aging fleet there now that image the surface and act as communications relays, not to mention investigating the rest of the solar system.

MSR has to fit into the broader suite of missions maintaining balance not only in solar system destinations, but also among small, medium, large and flagship missions. That’s particularly difficult right now when government budgets, including NASA’s, are going to be held steady — at best — rather than increasing as expected not so long ago. Glaze explained that the Fiscal Responsibility Act means her budget likely will be held to its FY2023 level instead of increasing as proposed in the FY2024 budget request. And it could be less.

The FY2024 request includes almost $1 billion for MSR and Figueroa’s IRB concluded that isn’t even enough to execute the program as currently designed. In fact, they found the current design to have a “near zero probability” of meeting the Launch Readiness Dates of 2027 for the ERO/CCRS and 2028 for SRL/MAV.  Pushing those dates to 2030 is possible, but would require $8.0-9.6 billion with funding “in excess of $1B per year … for three or more years beginning in 2025.”

Source: Report of the Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board-2. September 2023.

Alternative designs are possible, but the cost for those could reach $11 billion. Figueroa told COPP the program was underfunded from the start and NASA needs to acknowledge that it will be in the $8-11 billion range or there is little point in doing it.

“You first have to accept the fact that you are in the $8-11 billion range and set that aside and then focus on the architectures that you can execute with some realism and then you can finish what you start. Otherwise if you’re going to have an architecture that is so fragile, where any hiccup as you go along will set you way back, it is not prudent to embark down that path.” — Orlando Figueroa

The IRB-2’s cost figures captured the headlines, but there were other aspects of the mission that gave them pause.

At both the COPP and MEPAG meetings, Figueroa doubled-down on the imperative of figuring out the OS design, which “interconnects” the entire sample return architecture. How to get OS, which will contain the samples, from the MAV into the ERO is still being studied. “The lack of a well defined OS is just driving the whole system design and architecture,” he told MEPAG. The design not only will have implications for mass, but also to ensure there is no backward planetary protection — protecting Earth from any harmful material that might be in the samples.

At COPP, IRB-2 member Lisa Pratt, a former NASA Planetary Protection Officer, pointed out that bringing potentially hazardous Martian samples back to Earth will require interagency approvals and that work should have begun already. Everyone has to be in agreement to “declare the sample canister at the landing site safe for transfer to NASA.”

“You certainly don’t want to find out at that point that it’s declared unsafe and the canister and everything in the area around it is incinerated.” — Lisa Pratt

The canister will land at the Air Force Utah Test and Training Range, the same place the OSIRIS-REx samples landed last month. NASA plans to build a biosafety level-4 containment facility for the samples (the location has not been determined). That cost is not included in the estimates.

Despite all the challenges, Glaze and other NASA officials were upbeat. Glaze noted that NASA and its science programs have been through tough budgetary times in the past, especially the 2013 sequestration, but have always come through stronger. The key is for the science community to stick together.

“The one thing I want to say about budget is that I want to remind everyone that we’ve seen tight times before. … We had sequestration back in the last decade. … We will recover and we can come even through stronger than we were before. But in order to do that I want to encourage everyone of the importance of standing together as a community and supporting each other and all of the … planetary science within NASA and all of NASA in general. That’s the way we’ll get through the tough times.” — Lori Glaze

MEPAG chair Vicky Hamilton of the Southwest Research Institute agreed, but cautioned not everyone in the MEPAG community thinks MSR is the be all and end all. They want to do other projects in parallel with MSR.  “MSR does not negate the science value of the robotic program especially with regard to science that isn’t directly addressed by sample return” in NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP).

She is working with MEPAG members to develop a set of findings that she’ll present to the National Academies Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science at its meeting next week and to NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee in November.

“I understand not everyone is a fan of this mission even if you understand why we’re doing it, I get that, that’s OK, not everybody will be in love with every single mission. But I think NASA is committed, I’m committed, to making sure that while we’re doing this mission, we’re doing it the best way we can and ensuring the community as a whole has a viable path forward.” — Vicky Hamilton

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