NASA Wants New Ideas — Fast — on How to Return Samples from Mars Affordably

NASA Wants New Ideas — Fast — on How to Return Samples from Mars Affordably

After months of analysis, NASA said today it agrees with the results of last year’s Independent Review Board that concluded the Mars Sample Return mission plan needs a do-over. That is especially true in light of the agency’s new budget realities as it is forced to stay within tight budget caps imposed by the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Tomorrow NASA will issue a solicitation to industry, JPL and NASA Centers to come forward with new ideas on how to get the samples now being collected by the Perseverance rover back to Earth in an affordable, timely manner.

Returning samples from Mars has been a top priority for planetary scientists for decades. The knowledge that can be gleaned will be greatly enhanced if scientists can study them in fully equipped laboratories on Earth instead of remotely with the limited equipment that can be launched on a robotic spacecraft.

NASA’s science priorities are guided by Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine every 10 years (a decade). Mars Sample Return (MSR) has been the top priority in the last two planetary science Decadals. But it’s expensive and there’s only so much money to spend on planetary science. Mars is fascinating, but so is the Moon, the other planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, and comets.

The most recent Decadal, Origins, Worlds, and Life (OWL), championed MSR, but also put a limit on how much it should cost, $5.3 billion, and urged that it not exceed 35 percent of NASA’s planetary science budget in any given year.

NASA, in partnership with ESA, developed a plan that called for a NASA Sample Return Lander (SRL) equipped with an ESA robotic arm and a NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to land on Mars with two tiny helicopters fashioned after the very successful Ingenuity helicopter that completed 72 flights. Perseverance would bring the samples to the lander and/or the helicopters would retrieve them. Once transferred into the MAV, it would lift off and deliver the samples to Mars orbit where they would meet up with ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO). The samples would transfer into a NASA Capture, Containment and Return System (CCRS) inside the ERO for the trip back to Earth.

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

Until recently, the plan was to launch the ERO/CCRS in 2027 and the SRL/Helicopters/MAV in 2028, with the samples back on Earth in 2031. That was a revision from the original concept that garnered strong criticism by an Independent Review Board convened in 2020.  Still concerned about cost and schedule, NASA established a second Independent Review Board (IRB-2) in 2023. It concluded the program had a “near-zero” probability of meeting cost and schedule. The IRB-2 estimated the cost at $8-11 billion and recommended NASA completely rethink how to execute the mission.

In response, NASA established an internal Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board Response Team (MIRT).

NASA Administrator Sen. Bill Nelson, Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

After a six-month assessment, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Associate Administrator Nicky Fox revealed the results during a media telecon today.

NASA concurs with the IRB-2’s estimate that it would cost $8-11 billion. With NASA’s current budget outlook, the program would have to be stretched out so the samples would not come back to Earth until 2040.

Both are “unacceptable,” Nelson said. The $11 billion is “too much” because it would mean NASA would have to “cannibalize” other planetary science programs. Getting the samples back in 2040 is unacceptable because “it’s the decade of the 2040s that we’re gonna be landing astronauts on Mars.”

What Nelson wants is for industry, NASA’s nine civil service centers, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology, to come up with innovative ideas on how to get the samples back sooner than 2040 and for a cost closer to what was in the Decadal Survey. JPL is currently is in charge of the MSR program.

Nelson wants answers by this fall.

Nicky Fox, NASA Associate Administrator, Science Mission Directorate. Credit: NASA

Fox said a solicitation will be issued tomorrow inviting industry to submit proposals. At an “industry day” on April 22, NASA will elucidate what it’s looking for. Proposals will be due May 17. After  NASA selects those it wants to pursue, winners will have 90 days to submit their ideas, leading to a NASA decision in late fall/early winter.

Fox said they want to reduce cost in part by reducing risk, which means using “tried and true” technologies. They also want to reconsider specific pieces of the architecture, especially finding a way to reduce the size of the MAV and thus its cost. No vehicle has ever lifted off from Mars. How big MAV has to be depends on how much mass it sends into orbit. Right now Perseverance is collecting more than 40 samples in cigar-shaped tubes. Nelson and Fox said today NASA is committed to returning “some” of those samples.

In its response to the IRB-2 report, the MIRT team did come up with a new plan that calls for the ERO/CCRS to launch in 2030, followed by the SRL/MAV in 2035 and the samples back on Earth in 2040.

During a virtual science community Town Hall meeting after the media telecon, SMD Deputy Associate Administrator Sandra Connelly, who led MIRT, said they will not be trying to build support for that idea while other alternatives are being sought.

In the meantime, NASA has decided to spend just $310 million on MSR in FY2024 and request only $200 million for FY2025.

The agency requested $949 million for MSR in FY2024, but the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended only $300 million. The House Appropriations Committee approved the full request. The compromise in the final bill was to allow NASA to decide how much to spend between those two amounts.

The request for FY2025 was shown literally as “TBD” in the budget documentation sent to Congress on March 11. At the Town Hall meeting today, NASA Planetary Science Division director Lori Glaze said the $200 million was taken from the “Planetary Decadal Future” line item. NASA’s online budget website has been updated to show the change so the original figures are no longer available there, but had downloaded the original so the old and the new versions are shown here for comparison.

NASA’s original FY2025 budget request, March 11, 2024, showing Mars Sample Return as “TBD.” Source: NASA budget documentation. p. PS-1
NASA’s April 15, 2024 revised request, showing Mars Sample Return as $200 million. Source: NASA budget documentation. p. PS-1
NASA original FY2025 request for Planetary Decadal Future, March 11, 2024. Source: NASA budget documentation. p. PS-99
Revised NASA request for Planetary Decadal Future, April 15, 2024. Source: NASA budget documentation. p. PS-99

Glaze said the change would not impact other programs in the Planetary Science Division.

How much money MSR ultimately gets is up to Congress. Some members, especially those from California where JPL is located, strongly support the program. Others, especially from Maryland and Virginia, want to ensure MSR doesn’t negatively impact other planetary science programs like those managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center or the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

Nelson said today he’s spoken with almost all of the key House and Senate members with an interest in MSR about what was announced today and “they seem to be quite understanding of the predicament” NASA is in with the budget cuts in FY2024 and the caps for FY2025 set by the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

NASA’s FY2024 budget is 2 percent less than FY2023. The FY2025 request would merely bring it back to its FY2023 level. Compared to the President’s request, Nelson stressed that NASA was cut $2.5 billion in FY2024, of which $1 billion was from science.

“You can’t put 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound sack. And so we are trying to take the budget that we have been constrained with — a $2.5 billion hit and a billion hit of that is just in science — and we’re trying to figure out how to make this go forward without hurting [other programs like] Dragonfly, and NEO Surveyor, and VERITAS. All of these that are so important to the future of our planetary science program.” — Bill Nelson

Dragonfly is a dual-quadcopter that will fly over the dunes of Titan, a moon of Saturn. NEO Surveyor is an infrared telescope optimized for finding asteroids that might threaten Earth. VERITAS will explore Venus.

Nelson is scheduled to testify to the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday. That subcommittee supported full funding for MSR last year, so it will be interesting to hear their reaction.

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