SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

NASA rethinks plan to return rare Mars samples to Earth

Apr 15, 2024, 2:48 PM

NASA is seeking innovative methods that could help retrieve samples collected by the Perseverance r...

NASA is seeking innovative methods that could help retrieve samples collected by the Perseverance rover on Mars in the future. (NASA via CNN Newsource)

(NASA via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — NASA is seeking innovative methods that could help retrieve samples collected by the Perseverance rover on Mars in the future.

The rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021, has been gathering specimens from Jezero Crater, where an ancient lake and river delta once existed on the red planet. Scientists believe the samples could help them better understand whether life ever existed on Mars.

The original design for the Mars Sample Return program, a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency, was a complex one. The architecture involved multiple missions launching from Earth to Mars to collect the samples, and then conducting the first rocket launch from the surface of another planet to return the samples to Earth.

Concerns about the program

But there have been concerns about the program being too unwieldy due to complexity, expense and a delayed return date, which was originally expected to happen by 2031, but has been pushed after assessments by an independent review board. Budget cuts that have impacted NASA have also put the program at risk.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Nicky Fox, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, shared the federal agency’s response to the independent review board on Monday.

Reviews of the program have recommended that the Mars Sample return should not cost more than $5 billion to $7 billion, Nelson said. But NASA is being forced to deal with the constraints of reduced spending due to budget cuts for the 2024 and 2025 fiscal years, causing the agency to take a $2.5 billion hit, he said.

“Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions NASA has ever undertaken. The bottom line is, an $11 billion budget is too expensive, and a 2040 return date is too far away,” Nelson said. “Safely landing and collecting the samples, launching a rocket with the samples off another planet — which has never been done before — and safely transporting the samples more than 33 million miles (53 million kilometers) back to Earth is no small task. We need to look outside the box to find a way ahead that is both affordable and returns samples in a reasonable time frame.”

Nelson said it’s unacceptable to wait until 2040 to return the samples to Earth because the 2040s is “the decade that we’re going to be landing astronauts on Mars,” he reiterated during a Monday press conference.

Less budget, rising costs impact Mars Sample Return

An $11 billion price tag for the program would cause NASA to cannibalize other science programs and missions, Nelson said.

Those missions include the NEO, or Near-Earth Object, Surveyor to discover asteroids that may pose a risk to Earth; Dragonfly, which will investigate the potential habitability of Saturn’s moon Titan; and missions such as DAVINCI and VERITAS to uncover the secrets of Venus. (The Venus mission names are short for Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry and Imaging Plus and Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy.)

While Nelson is hopeful that the budget for fiscal year 2026 won’t be as constrained, opening up more science funding for NASA, it doesn’t solve the immediate problem of how to address moving forward with Mars Sample Return.

So, the space agency is opening up a call for help.

Innovation and trusted technology

Agency officials will soon announce solicitations to NASA centers and industry to develop a new plan that combines innovation with lessons learned from proven technology, according to Fox. NASA is targeting the 2030s for a sample-return mission with less complexity, cost and risk, he said.

It’s a quick turnaround for proposals, and the agency is expecting to have answers for how best to return samples from Mars by the fall, Nelson said.

The baseline requirement of the proposals is to return the 30 scientifically curated samples Perseverance has taken from a diverse set of locations, Fox said.

“Mars is extremely important to us,” Fox said. “It’s one of the only locations that could have had life. Having said that, we understand that in order to do things faster, we may have to lower the scope of the number of samples.”

The solicitation for a new architecture for Mars Sample Return will include a range of desired specimens to return to Earth, Fox said.

“We are operating from the premise that this is an important national objective that we return the samples,” Nelson said.

He reinforced the idea that NASA did not want to terminate the program because it was deemed too critical, especially as the agency looks to land astronauts on the red planet going forward.

Meanwhile, the current decisions won’t affect the scientific plan for Perseverance’s journey on Mars, and the rover continues to collect samples as it explores the crater rim, Fox said.

Looking to the future

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, manages the Perseverance rover mission and other exploration endeavors on Mars.

Current efforts for the return program were underway at JPL when layoffs hit the location in February to meet the requirements of budget cuts. The new architecture that’s ultimately developed for the sample return mission will determine the scope of JPL’s management oversight, Nelson said.

The European Space Agency has also played a big role in developing the program, and Fox confirmed that the agency is still involved in discussions about the future of the program.

For fiscal year 2025, Fox said she is recommending a budget request of $200 million while NASA assesses alternative architectures, which will also enable other planetary science to continue at JPL and other NASA centers.

“To organize a mission at this level of complexity, we employ decades of lessons on how to run a large mission, including incorporating the input we get from conducting independent reviews,” Fox said. “Our next steps will position us to bring this transformational mission forward and deliver revolutionary science from Mars — providing critical new insights into the origins and evolution of Mars, our solar system, and life on Earth.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Science & Technology

FILE - Boeing's Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V rocket is seen at Space Launch Complex 41 at the ...

Marcia Dunn, The Associated Press

Boeing’s 1st astronaut flight now set for June after a review of small leak on new capsule

Boeing is now aiming for its first astronaut launch at the beginning of June, after spending the past few weeks struggling with more problems on the space capsule.

3 days ago

A Bell 505 helicopter demonstrated the takeoff and landing capabilities that future air taxis will ...

Kiersten Nunez

A glimpse into the future of urban air travel with Utah’s first vertiport demonstration

An empty parking lot in Layton has been transformed into the stage for Utah’s first vertiport demonstration, offering a vision of the future of urban air travel.

7 days ago

Madison Police Department Mid Town District Capt. Jason Freedman and Det. Lindsey Ludden talk with ...

Associated Press

Bones found in 1989 in chimney identified as man who last contacted relatives in 1970

Authorities say human bones found inside the chimney of a Wisconsin music store in 1989 have been identified as those of a man whose last known contact with relatives was in 1970.

11 days ago

Visitors look at the skeleton of a gigantic Triceratops over 66 million years old, named "Big John,...

Katie Hunt, CNN

Mystery of warm-blooded dinosaurs could be unraveled by new study

Were dinosaurs warm-blooded like birds and mammals or cold-blooded like reptiles? It’s one of paleontology’s oldest questions. Here's what new research found.

13 days ago

A box full of donated eclipse glasses being inspected by Boy Scouts to help a local business owner ...

Lauren Steinbrecher

Utah eclipse glasses program calls for volunteers after overwhelming donation response

A Provo eclipse glasses donation program is asking for help to sort through hundreds of thousands of glasses people have been sending in from all over the country.

17 days ago

This image provided by NASA shows a solar flare, as seen in the bright flash in the lower right,  c...

Marcia Dunn, AP Aerospace Writer

Strong solar storm could disrupt communications and produce northern lights in US

An unusually strong solar storm headed toward Earth could produce northern lights in the U.S. and potentially disrupt power and communications this weekend.

18 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Electrician repairing ceiling fan with lamps indoors...

Lighting Design

Stay cool this summer with ceiling fans

When used correctly, ceiling fans help circulate cool and warm air. They can also help you save on utilities.

Side view at diverse group of children sitting in row at school classroom and using laptops...

PC Laptops

5 Internet Safety Tips for Kids

Read these tips about internet safety for kids so that your children can use this tool for learning and discovery in positive ways.

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

NASA rethinks plan to return rare Mars samples to Earth