Science & Technology



Too expensive, too slow: NASA asks for help with JPL's Mars Sample Return mission

Corinne Purtill, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

"Right now if JPL were to come up with the answer, then I'd say JPL is gonna be sitting pretty good," Nelson said during Monday's news conference. "But we're opening this up to everyone because we want to get every new and fresh idea that we can."

NASA's decision to outsource a solution to the Mars Sample Return problem frustrated some Mars scientists.

"What I expected is for NASA to step up and say, 'These things are hard and we choose to do them,' " said Bethany L. Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at Caltech. "That is the leadership required to be the nation leading the world in space exploration."

A joint project with the European Space Agency, Mars Sample Return would deliver rocks, rubble and dust that have already been gathered and sealed into tubes by the Perseverance rover.

The current design relies on a lander that would retrieve those tubes from the Red Planet's Jezero Crater and use a small rocket to ferry them into Martian orbit, where they would rendezvous with a spacecraft that would make the journey back to Earth. The rocket would touch down on Earth roughly five years after the orbiter's launch.

The ultimate goal is to comb the samples for evidence that life has ever existed on Mars, and to help NASA plan for future staffed missions, Nelson said.


In the most recent planetary science decadal survey, a report prepared for NASA every 10 years by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, planetary scientists named the Mars Sample Return mission as the "highest scientific priority of NASA's robotic exploration efforts this decade" and argued that the program should be completed "as soon as is practicably possible with no increase or decrease in its current scope."

But the authors cautioned that the ambitious mission shouldn't come at the cost of other planetary science, suggesting a roughly $5 billion to $7 billion cap.

"Mars Sample Return is of fundamental strategic importance to NASA, U.S. leadership in planetary science, and international cooperation and should be completed as rapidly as possible," the report stated. "However, its cost should not be allowed to undermine the long-term programmatic balance of the planetary portfolio."

The agency is committing to keeping the mission within that recommended budget, Nelson said. Allowing Mars Sample Return's costs to reach the $8 billion to $11 billion the review board estimated would require NASA "to cannibalize other programs, other science programs, and there are so many that are absolutely important," Nelson said.


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