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A Pause for Mars Sample Return

An illustration of NASA’s Mars Sample Return Lander on the surface, with the Perseverance rover in the background.
Credit: NASA

On November 13 2023, NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee, which advises all of NASA’s planetary science interests, held a meeting to discuss the state of various programs heading into 2024. One of the primary subjects of this meeting was the Mars Sample Return (MSR) Program, which seeks to return samples currently being gathered by NASA’s Perseverance rover back to Earth. The program has faced many challenges in the last year. These include delays ranging from technical and organisational problems, a rapidly expanding cost, and a barrage of criticism in the wake of these issues. The Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the small rocket designed to deliver samples from the surface into Martian Orbit, has faced repeated delays. This compounds with issues facing the Orbiting Sample (OS), the capsule which holds the Mars samples on-orbit. The precise design of the OS, which the rest of the mission architecture is built around, remains unclear. Mars Sample Return can be likened to a relay race, where several pieces of hardware carry the samples back to Earth incrementally. To further the analogy, this would make OS the baton itself. The Orbiting Sample is carried on the top of the Mars Ascent Vehicle, and must then be collected by ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO). In order to catch the samples from Mars orbit, ERO employs what is called the Capture, Containment, and Return System (CCRS). CCRS is a series of mechanisms designed to target and acquire the free-floating container and transfer it into an extremely secure position within an aeroshell which will return to sample to Earth. The incredible complexity of CCRS and the precision required for it to operate successfully means the design cannot meaningfully mature until the OS has.

These issues, and more, have compounded to create a skyrocketing price tag and increased uncertainty around the viability of the Mars Sample Return Program. MSR is seen as a necessary precursor to human astronauts on the surface of Mars, and with the nature of NASA’s budget becoming unclear, organisers were forced to make a difficult choice. In a series of posts on Twitter, Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline relayed the events of the meeting. MSR Program Director Jeff Gramling stated that the Mars Sample Return Program would be paused for fiscal year 2024. Gramling cited a need to reassess the program’s architecture, technical requirements, and organisational complexity in order to ensure a sustainable path forward that falls within the allotted budget. Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Dr. Nicola “Nicky” Fox clarified that getting the Mars samples from the surface and into orbit is the key focus. SMD Department Director Sandra Connelly further clarified that while CCRS would see preliminary design review, it would not be moving further in FY2024, which saves money and gives other systems the chance to catch up.

While initially the statement that a vital program will be taking a year of pause can sound startling, this is MSR’s best path forward. The issues which have come to light in the past year, and even prior, were never going to disappear without being addressed or by financially brute-forcing the program through to the end. Taking the time to step back and address underlying issues in the program’s management is the best course of action to ensure when the time comes, Mars Sample Return can deliver. 

Dr. Nicola Fox stated that despite the pause, they are still committed to a 2030 launch for the Mars Sample Return Lander. While also stating that the date is subject to change if deemed necessary, the mission and policy teams are reportedly looking at “creative” ways to redo the program’s architecture to maintain the 2030 date. While some might be quick to sound the alarm in response to this decision, the truth is that the alarm was already sounded, and this is the response. Hopefully measures taken over the coming year will ensure a safe landing of Mars samples back on Earth in the decades to come.

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