Update on the Mars Sample Return Program: “It’s All About the Samples” – Sky & Telescope


Mars Ascent Vehicle concept
This illustration shows a concept of how the NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle, carrying tubes containing rock and soil samples, could be launched from the surface of Mars in one step of the Mars sample return mission.
NASA / JPL-Caltech

Perseverance is just 100 days away from its landing on Mars. Its mission: to gather samples from Jezero Crater for eventual return to Earth. Those eventual plans received a major boost today: an independent review board with members from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the planetary science community, and aerospace industry affirmed that NASA’s and ESA’s plans to retrieve and return those samples are achievable.

To recap: For more than three years, NASA and ESA have been working together to plan a Mars Sample Return program, which will have three major components. The first is the Perseverance mission, well on its way.  Second, a NASA-built Sample Retrieval Lander will send a small ESA-built rover to retrieve Perseverance’s samples, place them into a NASA-built Mars Ascent Vehicle (that is, a rocket), and launch them into Mars orbit. Third, an ESA-built Earth Return Orbiter will rendezvous with the samples and place them into a NASA-built Earth return vehicle, which will bring them back to Earth.

The review board report recommended budget and schedule changes, increasing spending by at least $500 million and delaying the plans for the first launch from 2026 to 2027. The board also suggested a new mantra for the Perseverance mission: “It’s all about the samples.”

Tanja Bosak (MIT), who is a Perseverance Returned Sample Science Participating Scientist, explains the difference between operating a science mission like Curiosity and a sample-gathering mission like Perseverance: “Curiosity has a lot of time to move over the terrain and stop at any interesting spot, look around, go back to spots of interest, and conduct lengthy and complex analyses.

“Perseverance has much less time during the prime (or extended) mission to explore and has to keep on moving, while at the same time characterizing the geology, developing the context for sample selection, and acquiring the samples.”

Another key recommendation by the independent review board: very close collaboration, with wide-open, transparent communication, between NASA and ESA at all levels of management on the Mars Sample Return program. In fact, it recommended that NASA and ESA establish field offices at each other’s leading centers involved in the program.

The last time there was such a close collaboration between NASA and ESA was on the Cassini-Huygens mission; NASA built Cassini at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and ESA built Huygens at its ESTEC facility in the Netherlands. This close collaboration has obvious management benefits, but there’s an additional political benefit: it is much harder to cancel a mission where the cooperation is so close.

Cassini-Huygens survived a U.S. Congressional push for its cancellation. More recently, the U.S. unilaterally pulled out of its participation in ESA’s ExoMars program, leaving ESA stuck without an experienced partner to help them land their ambitious rover on Mars.

Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for The Planetary Society, says: “ESA and NASA learned their lesson from the ExoMars debacle: don’t make a joint mission easily severable. Both space agencies need each other to succeed in this mission, which makes any one of them walking away from this commitment highly consequential. This helps establish a stronger base of political buy-in for the program, which it will need in order to survive the inevitable cost and technical challenges it will face.”

All eyes are now on Perseverance. If it lands safely on February 18th, it will be full speed ahead for Mars Sample Return.

Read the full report here (PDF).





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