NASA Seeks Efficient Strategy for Martian Sample Return

NASA has announced that the current plan to bring rock samples from Mars to Earth, which could potentially harbor evidence of ancient life, requires significant reevaluation.

The agency has determined that the existing budget will not facilitate the return of these materials until 2040, and the proposed $11 billion needed to expedite the process is not financially viable.

NASA is now calling for proposals for a more cost-effective and expeditious approach, aiming to finalize a new plan later this year.

The mission to return Martian rock samples has long been considered a top priority in the field of planetary science, as these samples could dramatically enhance our understanding of the potential for extraterrestrial life, much like the Apollo moon rocks reshaped our knowledge of the early solar system.

However, NASA now concedes that the existing approach to achieving this goal is impractical under current financial constraints.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated in a teleconference, “The bottom line is that $11 billion is too expensive, and not returning samples until 2040 is unacceptably too long.”

Nelson, a former US senator, is determined not to let the Mars project detract from other scientific endeavors within the agency.

The Mars Sample Return (MSR) program, a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), is already underway, with NASA’s Perseverance rover currently collecting and cataloging rock samples on Mars.

A subsequent mission, initially planned for this decade, would transport a rocket to Mars to launch the samples into space for a rendezvous with a European spacecraft bound for Earth.

The revised plan aims to bring approximately 300g of Martian material to a landing site in Utah by 2033.

However, an independent review conducted last September raised concerns about the feasibility of the mission’s timeline and the potential cost, which could range from 11 billion.

In response, NASA agrees with the review’s findings and is now seeking alternative solutions.

Dr. Nicola Fox, director of NASA’s science directorate, stated, “We are looking at out-of-the-box possibilities that could return the samples earlier and at a lower cost.”

These possibilities might involve a smaller, more streamlined rocket.

Dr. Fox emphasized that ESA’s role remains crucial to the project, though the launch of Europe’s significant contribution, the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO), may be delayed until 2030.

Dr. Orson Sutherland, leader of ESA’s Mars exploration group, indicated that his organization would carefully assess NASA’s revised plan.

Nelson stressed that NASA’s commitment to the MSR program is unwavering, but it must fit within a sustainable budget of 57 billion.

The scientific importance of the MSR was recently highlighted by Perseverance’s investigations in the Jezero crater, which is believed to have contained a large lake about 3.8 billion years ago, offering a promising environment for the existence and preservation of microbial life.

According to Prof Briony Horgan from Purdue University, the rover is currently carrying samples of silica and carbonate-cemented rocks, which are excellent at preserving signs of ancient life on Earth.

“These rocks are the exact types of samples that we came to Mars to find, and we very much want to get them back to our labs on Earth,” she said.

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