Thu. May 30th, 2024

NASA to look for new options to carry out Mars Sample Return program

Jamie Roberts By Jamie Roberts May26,2024

WASHINGTON — NASA will seek “out of the box” ideas in a bid to reduce the costs and shorten the schedule for returning samples from Mars.

In an April 15 briefing, agency officials announced they would solicit proposals from NASA centers and from industry on “innovative designs” to reshape its Mars Sample Return (MSR) effort after an internal review confirmed the ballooning costs of the overall program.

That review found that the current program would cost between $8 billion and $11 billion, the same range offered by an independent assessment completed last September. To fit that into the overall planetary science budget without affecting other programs would delay the return of samples from the early 2030s to 2040.

“The bottom line is that $11 billion is too expensive and not returning samples until 2040 is unacceptably too long,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the briefing.

To try to reduce costs and schedule, NASA will issue a request for proposals April 16 seeking ideas on alternative approaches for the overall MSR architecture or specific elements of it, like the sample retrieval lander or Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) rocket that would place the collected samples into orbit. Proposals would be due to NASA May 17, with the agency issuing contracts for 90-day studies shortly thereafter.

“I’m expecting to get everybody in high gear and that we have the answers to this by this fall,” Nelson said.

While NASA is looking for innovative approaches, it is not necessarily looking for new technologies. “What we’re looking for is heritage,” said Nicola Fox, NASA associate administrator for science. “What we’re hoping is that we’ll be able to get back to some more traditional, tried-and-true architectures, things that do not require huge technological leaps.”

One example she gave is technology that enables a smaller, and presumably less expensive, MAV. The studies, she said, will seek proposals that could return an unspecified number of samples, and not necessarily all the roughly 30 samples that the Perseverance rover will have on board when it completes its work.

NASA’s hope is that the studies can significantly reduce the cost and schedule for MSR, but officials did not set a specific goal. “We’re definitely going to try,” Nelson said, adding he was counting on the expertise of NASA personnel and those in industry to find a solution.

The goal is to do better than a revised version of the baseline architecture for MSR that NASA developed in response to the independent report last fall. That architecture would see the launch of the ESA-developed Earth Return Orbiter in 2030, slightly later than currently planned, said Sandra Connelly, NASA deputy associate administrator for science, during a town hall meeting after the briefing. That would be followed by the sample retrieval lander with the MAV in 2035, allowing samples to make it back to Earth in 2040.

One issue is the longevity of Perseverance. Connelly said the new plan would have Perseverance complete its exploration of terrain outside Jezero Crater and return to the crater floor in 2028. Once there, it would go into a “quiescent state” until the sample retrieval lander arrived.

Fox suggested in the town hall meeting that this baseline concept would not fly given its projected high cost. “In the current budget climate that we have, $11 billion, as the administrator said, is too much,” she said. “I wouldn’t say the entire thing is dead on arrival. What we’re looking at is how we can infuse some innovation and heritage and simplification.”

MSR, though, will be on a fiscal diet the next two years. Fox said that NASA plans to spend $310 million on MSR in the current fiscal year, near the low end of the range offered by congressional appropriators in the final omnibus spending bill last month. That is a little less than one third of the $949.3 million that NASA originally requested for MSR in its 2024 budget proposal.

NASA’s fiscal year 2025 budget request left funding for MSR as “TBD” or to be determined. NASA now says it will seek $200 million for the program. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at the town hall meeting that the $200 million will come from a line for “Planetary Decadal Future” in the original budget proposal, avoiding taking money away from existing missions or research programs. It would, though, further delay new missions, like a proposed Uranus mission recommended by the latest planetary science decadal survey.

Nelson said he has had “extensive” discussions about NASA’s MSR plans with members of Congress, including senators and representatives from California worried about the effects of the changes on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which laid off 8% of its workforce in February in response to reductions in spending on MSR. “They seem to be quite understanding of the predicament we’re in.”

However, in a statement a few hours after the briefing, Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) criticized the budget reductions. “These funding levels are woefully short for a mission that NASA itself identified as its highest priority in planetary science and that has been decades in the making,” they stated, asking Nelson “to work with Congress to better balance these cuts” to protect the JPL workforce.

NASA officials said at the briefing and town hall that there was no discussion of suspending or even canceling MSR, citing its high ranking in the last two planetary science decadal survey among flagship-class missions. “Returning these samples from Mars is such a huge priority for us. That is why we’re doing all of these things,” Fox said.

“Returning the samples from Mars remains an important operation,” Nelson said.

Jamie Roberts

By Jamie Roberts

Jamie is an award-winning investigative journalist with a focus on uncovering corruption and advocating for social justice. With over a decade of experience in the field, Jamie's work has been instrumental in bringing about positive change in various communities.

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2 thoughts on “NASA to look for new options to carry out Mars Sample Return program”
  1. It’s crucial to explore novel avenues to cut costs and accelerate the timeline for retrieving Mars samples. $11 billion is just too steep a price tag and a return date of 2040 is simply too far off. Let’s hope these fresh proposals bring swift and effective solutions!

  2. It’s crucial for NASA to explore fresh, cost-effective strategies to accelerate the return of Mars samples. The $11 billion budget is excessively high, and delaying sample retrieval until 2040 is simply unreasonable. I’m optimistic that with collaborative efforts, a viable solution can be found sooner than later.

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