NASA needs new ideas and tech to get Mars Sample Return mission off the ground

Current plans are too expensive and slow, meaning China could win race to score red rocks

NASA still wants to proceed with its Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission but needs its cost to drop – so it's seeking help from the commercial space sector.

MSR, which would see NASA collect a series of Martian rock samples for return to Earth, has struggled since its inception. A report issued by a NASA Independent Review Board last year found that the program's budget had exploded and this, along with other problems uncovered by the Board, meant the MSR mission appeared to be in danger of failing.

"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," NASA administrator Bill Nelson explained during a conference call on Monday. "We need to look outside the box to find a way ahead that is both affordable and returns samples in a reasonable timeframe."

According to Nelson, MSR's costs must fall to between $5 to $7 billion to avoid the agency having to cannibalize other programs.

He also wants the Mars rocks to reach Earth before 2040, because "That's the same decade we want to put astronauts on Mars.”

NASA will therefore engage with the USA’s growing private space industry, its own Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other NASA centers for ideas on how to reduce the cost of the program.


Concept art of the Mars Sample Return mission's various components – Click to enlarge

Nicky Fox, associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate, revealed on the call that the agency plans to release its solicitation notice for MSR partners on Tuesday, and plans to hold an industry day for the project next week. Proposals from collaborators will be due by May 17. said NASA wants full studies completed within 90 days so it can determine who'll get funding before the end of 2024.

In a response [PDF] to the Independent Board’s MSR report from last year published on Monday, Fox explained NASA is soliciting "innovative" ideas for the mission such as a smaller Mars Ascent Vehicle (the craft that will carry the samples from the surface into orbit) and other forms of tech that would reduce the budget, mission complexity, and risk.

With so much money on the line in the face of NASA's budgetary woes, a mere $310 million has been allotted to MSR in the current fiscal year. Fox explained that meant the program is effectively paused in light of the findings from the IRB.

The $310 million, Fox added, will only be used to complete NASA's internal review of MSR, solicit the studies from industry partners, and continue work on any aspects of MSR that could still end up being used in future iterations of the scheme.

Both Nelson and Fox said several times on the call that MSR remains a priority mission for NASA and that they want the project to continue. Nelson explained that the agency made the choice to continue the program because it's too important to the US's science goals to cancel.

"We were put in this situation because of cutbacks in spending by Congress," Nelson lamented. "That's the whole point of what we've announced today."

Is MSR effectively over?

Garry Hunt – principal investigator on the imaging team for NASA'S Voyager mission and a long-time JPL research scientist – told The Register that news of the MSR project has him worried.

"When Bill Nelson said the only way we could [launch MSR] the way it's set up now is to cannibalize other missions I was worried," Hunt said. "We cannot gamble on these things."

Hunt told us that he believes the US must succeed with MSR, but it has to move the timeline up. "If NASA can't bring this forward the Chinese will have been there and done it," Hunt warned.

"This mission has got to succeed," he added, saying that the US's national space prestige is at risk. Hunt believes JPL should take a leadership role in the future of MSR, with the best of the private American space industry used to form the rest of the team.

"America should use its total space capabilities," Hunt declared, arguing that they aren't all found in NASA labs. If the agency can put together the right team Hunt believes the mission can succeed.

When asked what would happen if NASA can't find a way to shrink the MSR's budget to $7 billion and get samples back to Earth before 2040, NASA administrator Nelson didn't mince words, either: "There's no reason not to try." ®

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