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NASA is reconsidering its plan to bring rare samples from Mars to Earth

NASA is reconsidering its plan to bring rare samples from Mars to Earth

(CNN) — NASA is looking for innovative methods that could help recover samples collected by the Perseverance Mars rover in the future.

The rover, which landed on Mars in February 2021, was collecting samples from Jezero Crater, where an ancient lake and river delta once existed on the Red Planet. Scientists believe the samples could help better understand whether life existed on Mars.

The original design of the program Mars sample returnThe partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency has been complex. The preparation included launching multiple missions from Earth to Mars to collect samples and then performing the first rocket launch from the surface of another planet to return the samples to Earth.

The illustration shows a concept of multiple robots that could come together to transport samples collected by NASA's Mars Perseverance rover to Earth. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

But there were concerns that the program was too impractical due to the complexity, expense and delayed return date, which was originally expected to occur in 2031 but was postponed after Independent review board evaluations. Budget cuts that hit NASA also put the program in jeopardy.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Nikki Fox, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, participated Federal Agency Response to Independent Review Board This Monday.

Nelson said reviews of the program found that returning a Mars sample should cost no more than $5 billion to $7 billion. But he said NASA is having to deal with lower spending constraints due to budget cuts for fiscal years 2024 and 2025, causing the agency to lose $2.5 billion.

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“The Mars sample return will be one of the most complex missions NASA has ever undertaken. The bottom line is that the $11 billion budget is too expensive and the 2040 return date is too far away,” Nelson said. “Landing, collecting samples safely, and launching A rocket with samples from another planet (something that has never been done before), and safely transporting samples more than 53 million kilometers (33 million miles) to Earth is not an easy task.” “We need to think outside the box to find a way forward that is affordable.” Cost and availability of samples within a reasonable time frame.”

Nelson said that it is unacceptable to wait until 2040 to return samples to Earth because the 2040s are “the decade in which we will send astronauts to Mars,” as he stressed during a press conference on Monday.

Lower budget and higher costs affect the return of samples from Mars
Nelson said the program's $11 billion cost would prompt NASA to dismantle other science programs and missions.

These tasks include NEO, near-Earth object, surveyor To discover asteroids that may pose a danger to Earth; dragonfly, which will investigate the possibility of habitation on Saturn's moon Titan; And missions like Da Vinci and Veritas to discover the secrets of Venus. (The names of the Venus missions are abbreviations for Deep Atmosphere Venus Achievement of Noble Gass, Chemistry and Imaging Plus, Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy.)

While Nelson hopes the FY 2026 budget won't be too tight, which would open up more science funding for NASA, it doesn't solve the immediate problem of how to handle Mars sample returns moving forward.

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Therefore, the space agency is opening a call for help.

Innovation and reliable technology

Agency officials will soon announce requests to NASA centers and industries to develop a new plan that combines innovation with lessons learned from proven technology. According to Fox, NASA is targeting the 2030s in order to send samples with less complexity, cost and risk. He said.

Nelson said this is a quick turnaround for proposals, and the agency hopes to have answers about the best way to return Mars samples by the fall.

A key condition of the proposals is the return of the 30 scientifically curated samples taken by Perseverance from a variety of sites, Fox said.

“Mars is very important to us, it is one of the only places where life could have existed,” Fox said. “However, we realize that to get things done faster, we may have to narrow down the number of samples.”

Fox said the request for a new design for Mars sample return will include a variety of samples selected for return to Earth.

“We are working from the understanding that returning samples is an important national goal,” Nelson said.

Nelson reinforced the idea that NASA does not want to end the program because it considers it extremely important, especially since the agency seeks to transport astronauts to the Red Planet in the future.

In the meantime, the current decisions will not affect the scientific plan for Perseverance's mission to Mars, and the rover continues to collect samples as it explores the rim of the crater, Fox said.

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Look to the future

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, manages the Perseverance rover mission and other Mars exploration efforts.

Current return program efforts were underway at JPL when Layoffs affected them In February to meet the requirements of budget cuts. The new architecture ultimately developed for the sample return mission will determine the extent of JPL's administrative oversight, Nelson said.

The European Space Agency also played a major role in developing the program, and Fox confirmed that the agency remains involved in discussions about the future of the program.

For fiscal year 2025, Fox said he recommends a $200 million budget request while NASA evaluates alternative structures, which would also allow other planetary science to continue at JPL and other NASA centers.

“To organize a mission of this level of complexity, we used decades of lessons on how to execute a large mission, including incorporating the input we get from conducting independent reviews,” Fox said. Forward presents transformative science from Mars, providing important new insights into the origins and evolution of Mars, our solar system, and life on Earth.