Independent reviewers find NASA’s plans to return Mars samples seriously flawed – Ars Technica

Zoom in / The fate of the mission to return samples from Mars is at stake.

An independent review of NASA’s ambitious mission to bring back about half a kilogram of rocks and soil from the surface of Mars has found that the program is impractical in its current form.

NASA had planned to launch critical elements of the Mars Sample Return mission, or MSR, by 2028, with a total program budget of $4.4 billion. Independent review board report Which was made public on Thursdayconcludes that this timeline and budget are largely unrealistic.

The earliest date for launching the mission from Earth is 2030, and this opportunity will only be possible with a total budget of between $8 billion and $11 billion.

“MSR represents a deep space exploration priority for NASA,” the report states. “However, the MSR was created with unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the beginning. The MSR was also organized under an unworkable structure. As a result, there is currently no schedule, cost, or technical baseline that is reliable, identical, or properly marginal.” “It can be accomplished with potentially available funding.”

The findings of the independent review, led by Orlando Figueroa, retired deputy director of the Center for Science and Technology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, echo a report published by Ars Technica about three months ago that raises serious questions about the costs and timeline. The concern expressed by some scientists, including former NASA science chief Thomas Zurbuchen, was that the inflated cost of a Mars sample return would erode funding from other science missions.

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Following the Ars Technica report, some policymakers in the US Senate also expressed serious concerns about the direction of the sample return program.

the mission

Under NASA’s current plan, the space agency will develop a large Sample Retriever Lander. After landing on Mars, the Perseverance rover — which has been collecting and storing samples of Martian dust in 38 titanium tubes, each about the size of a large hot dog — will bring its samples to the lander.

Once delivered to the lander, these sample tubes will be placed aboard a rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle. This rocket is being developed by Lockheed Martin and will be stored inside the lander. After launching from Mars, this rocket will launch an “orbital sample container” into Mars orbit, where it will be picked up by a “Earth Return Vehicle” built by the European Space Agency. This vehicle will carry the samples into Earth’s orbit, where they will be launched in a small spacecraft to land on the planet about five years after the start of the mission.

As a backup plan, in case Perseverance is unable to deliver samples to the lander, NASA proposed including two small helicopter-like aircraft. cleverness A vehicle to collect samples. Independent reviewers said one helicopter would likely be acceptable.

Why is it important to return samples from Mars?

The report reaffirms the scientific importance of returning samples from Mars, whether for geological purposes or to assess whether life existed on the Red Planet, which in its distant past was somewhat similar to Earth, with a thick atmosphere, as well as rivers and lakes. .

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“MSR represents a critical next step in a strategic Mars exploration program spanning the past four decades,” the report states. “American and European spacecraft and American rovers have found promising locations where life may once have existed.”

The sample return mission has been a top priority for the scientific community for decades, including being the most requested mission in the last two surveys of the National Academies’ Planetary Science Decadal Survey report that informs space policy decisions by Congress and the president.

Reviewers also pointed to the importance of NASA and the European Space Agency in leading the world in space exploration as a hallmark of soft power. China previously announced plans to launch the “Tianwen-3” sample return mission to Mars as early as 2028 or 2030, which represents a clear challenge to the American scientific leadership in Mars exploration.

Many problems to fix

The report says NASA must do a better job of engaging with the planetary science community to explain its priorities for the mission and position it as the culmination of a decades-long Mars exploration strategy. Furthermore, reviewers said canceling the Mars sample return would do that no Freeing up billions of dollars for other planetary science missions.

“One particular and understandable concern from the community is the impact the MSR might have on the rest of the Planetary Science Division,” the report states. “NASA should address this concern while clarifying and dispelling the idea that canceling the MSR would necessarily mean bigger budgets for everyone else in the Planetary Science Division or even the Mars Exploration Program. Cancellation could also call into question the viability of other ambitious sample return efforts envisioned by the rover.” Community Planetary sciences.”

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Because this may be the scientific community’s only near-term opportunity to study samples from Mars, the report also says the agency should direct the Perseverance rover to travel beyond Jezero Crater “as soon as possible.” The goal of this maneuver is to obtain “higher-value samples near the edge of the crater and beyond,” in order to maximize the chance of finding samples that may contain evidence of life.

Overall, the report presents more than 20 findings and recommendations that clearly indicate to NASA and the mission’s primary field center, JPL, that their current plans for a Mars sample return mission have been disrupted. As a result, the agency must significantly revamp its plans to reduce costs, establish a reasonable timeline, and maximize scientific potential.

NASA has responded to the release of the report by announcing its own review of the review, saying that this team will make a recommendation by March 2024 regarding the path forward for Mars sample return within a comprehensive, balanced science program.

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