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A Shake Up For Mars Sample Return

A graphic showing the primary elements of the Mars Sample Return architecture. Earth Return Orbiter hangs above the Mars Perseverance Rover. The other elements of this graphic, the Sample Retrieval Lander, Mars Ascent Vehicle, and Sample Retrieval Helicopter(s) are the primary concerns of the recent announcement.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On April 15th 2024, NASA hosted a media teleconference giving updates on the current status of the agency’s Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. MSR is a vital step in providing high fidelity environmental data which could dramatically inform the technology and methodology for a planned human mission to the Red Planet. During the conference NASA Administrator Bill Nelson highlighted the projected arrival of the samples from Mars in 2040—in the same decade currently anticipated for Artemis missions to Mars. This alongside a projected 11 billion dollar price tag and the restrictive budget currently allotted to NASA poses a genuine risk to other science missions. Both the Dragonfly and NEO Surveyor missions were described as potential targets for “cannibalization” to reserve more resources for an accelerated Mars Sample Return based on the current architecture.

All of this in consideration, Senator Nelson laid clear that the current schedule for Mars Sample Return is “unacceptable.” These findings come as MSR was subjected to independent reviews of the mission’s architecture, and was already paused. In response to the findings, the pause has been extended, and an open call to all NASA Research Centers and Partners will be made on the 16th of April, requesting concepts and proposals for a revised Mars Sample Return mission that can return samples from Mars quicker and cheaper. According to Dr. Nicola Fox, Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the proposals will be due on May 17th, giving only 90 days for new ideas to be studied and returned for a final selection sometime in Fall of 2024.

The specifics of what a revised Mars Sample Return will look like are unclear, but some general ideas remain unchanged. A renewed Mars Sample Return will still be returning samples from Jezero Crater collected by the Mars Perseverance rover, whose mission and timeline is presently unaffected by this change. Perseverance has currently cached samples from a variety of regions within sample tubes; which of these tubes will be returned to Earth will depend on the proposed timeline, a range of samples of varying return priority is included in the call for proposals. Also remaining a part of the resultant architecture will be the European Space Agency’s provision of an Earth Return Orbiter (ERO), which despite new questions seems to have held to its previously scheduled date. ERO’s role is to collect the samples following their delivery into Mars orbit and carry them back to Earth, providing the mechanics to store the precious cargo in an aeroshell for Earth atmospheric entry.

A slide shown at the 40th meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) showing the unprecedented scale and complexity of the current Sample Retrieval Lander design, a major linchpin of current scheduling difficulties. The announcement made on the 15th comes just days ahead of the next MEPAG meeting, to be held April 24th thru 26th.
Credit: Jeff Gramling, Dr. Michael Meyers

The primary target of this solicitation is revisions to the Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL), Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), and related technologies. These form the link between Perseverance’s cached samples on the ground to ESA’s ERO returning them to Earth. SRL, carrying the MAV, will include not only the provisions to land at Jezero Crater, but also the mechanisms which transfer Perserverance’s collected samples into a capsule aboard the MAV. The MAV then launches, potentially with assistance from the SRL, and carries the samples into Mars orbit, where they await ERO.

Answers on specific design revisions for ERO, how many samples are brought back to Earth, and which samples they will be will depend on what NASA returns with in the Fall. When asked by Scientific American what new technologies are expected to enable an accelerated timeline, the answer given by Dr. Nicola Fox was the inverse; it is hoped that expanded use of tried-and-true heritage technology will be able to cut down development times and cost. Of course, a Mars Sample Return has never been done before, and in response to a later question Senator Nelson further clarified that the vision is for an adaptation of technologies from already flown planetary landers or spacecraft to be adapted to serve the needs of the MSR lander. For instance, a smaller, less complex MAV may be a trade worth making if less returned samples means an affordable mission and actionable timeline. Sandra E. Connelly, Deputy Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, emphasized there are no limitations on what can be proposed, and as an example suggested under a revised architecture samples could even be delivered to cislunar space instead of directly to Earth, where they would presumably be picked up by Artemis astronauts. Some amount of development work will be required no matter what the revision brings, but the hope is for a dramatic reduction from the development work required of the current plan.

A full sample tube deposited by Perseverance at the Three Forks cache in Jezero Crater. This tube alongside nine others were deposited to form a contingency cache in case Perseverance was unable to return to Jezero Crater.
Credit: NASA, JPL

It was mentioned that a new architecture may not have been necessary had more funding been available to enable an accelerated timeline, but it isn’t. As explained by Nelson, “We were put in this situation because of the cutbacks by the congress of the spending. That is what we’re having to respond to, and that is the whole point of what we’re announcing today.” Recent budget uncertainty and reductions have had wide reaching impacts for NASA and its development centers, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was previously handling MSR. Current projections do not show NASA’s budget situation improving, forcing NASA to move forward with a new approach to pursue improving the mission timescale without putting the agency’s other planetary science commitments at risk. The hope is that a revised MSR will fall closer inline with the pricing estimates of the 2020 Planetary Science Decadal Survey, somewhere in the range of $5.2 billion to $6.9 billion, which would be much more manageable.

Even if the future of MSR is uncertain, this new approach signals NASA’s incredibly strong commitment to accomplishing the goals of a Mars Sample Return, and to long-term Artemis Program objectives. In an industry and agency where decisions made years in the past can linger and continue to cause problems, the ability to recognize and admit the need for a change of plans is valuable. Additionally, depending on the results of this ambitious solicitation, Mars Sample Return may set a new precedent and open new opportunities for planetary science missions going forward. For instance, there is some implication that awarding multiple NASA Centers different components of MSR is on the table depending on the strengths and weaknesses of various proposals. This would require new management processes to coordinate work across multiple centers, opening new pathways for planetary science missions to be developed and assembled on shorter timescales and potentially reshaping the ways in which NASA conducts science in the future.

The current state of Mars Sample Return demonstrates the challenges being faced to tackle the ever-increasing complexities of Moon-to-Mars objectives. However, it also displays NASA’s willingness to think outside the box and adapt to pursue new options to accomplish their stated objectives on time and in-budget. While alarming, in the end this decision may be exactly what the MSR program needs—a wake up call.

Edited by Nik Alexander

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