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NASA admits that its Mars Sample Return project needs new ideas

The present plan for Mars Sample Return
The present plan for Mars Sample Return

In issuing yesterday its reponse [pdf] to the February 28, 2024 audit [pdf] by NASA’s inspector general (IG) of its Mars Sample Return mission (MSR), NASA has admitted that its Mars Sample Return project needs new ideas and major changes. From the press release:

“The bottom line is, an $11 billion budget is too expensive, and a 2040 return date is too far away,” said [NASA administrator Bill] Nelson.

The agency will today issue a call for proposals from the private sector for alternative ideas for picking up the samples on Mars and getting them up into orbit.

This NASA response to the IG report however changes little else in overall project, and almost certainly will not succeed in either reducing cost or shortening the timeline in any way.

Perseverance's long term planned route
Planned routes for future Perseverance
exploration, now likely truncated.

To save money Perseverance will cease exploration in 2028, returning to the floor of Jezero Crater where it will sit and wait for the sample return lander to arrive. Beforehand it will do some exploration and gather samples from beyond the crater rim, but it appears that exploration program, as shown in the map to the right, will be shortened significantly. Of its planned 30 total sample cores, only ten are now expected to be returned initially under this shortened and revised program.

In addition, NASA has rejected the recommendations of the inspector general to consolidate the management of MSR’s many parts. The overall complex management of the project, as shown in the graphic above, will be retained, though NASA will now hire one chief scientist to stand over those many different parts.

Don’t expect NASA’s decision now to bring in new ideas from the private sector to save money or reduce the timeline in any signifcant way. What is apparent from the vague wording of the press release, as well as NASA’s actual response, is that the agency wishes to change as little as possible in this project. No changes to the overall structure of the effort is proposed. The European Space Agency (ESA) will still build the Mars orbiter to receive the samples from Mars, and then send them back to Earth in a sample return capsule — a project that the IG considered very vulnerable to budget overuns and schedule delays.

All NASA has done is admitted that asking Lockheed Martin to build the Mars ascent rocket was a mistake. The company presently has no rocketry experience. It would be building such a thing from scratch. Better to put the bid out again because there are others in the private sector, such as SpaceX, with technology already under development (Starship) designed to do this work.

This one change will do nothing to significantly lower the project’s cost, or reduce its timeline. The project still has too many pieces, being built by too many different entities. NASA will still be relying on ESA’s orbiter and return vehicle. And NASA will still have to devise a way to transfer the sample from the new ascent vehicle to the return capsule, without exposing the samples to contamination.

If SpaceX gets the bid to use Starship as the lander and ascent vehicle, a much simpler plan would be for it to continue back to Earth directly. The samples would never have to be transferred once leaving Mars, thus reducing complexity and risk. Refueling would be required, but that is technology SpaceX is already developing as necessary for any Starship Mars missions.

This plan however would eliminate the need for ESA’s orbiter, and for political reasons NASA can’t do that.

The deadline for the new proposals is May 17th.

Genesis cover

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  • MDN

    I would presume that as an upside a Starship based solution to this problem could also deliver a small fleet of additional rovers and helicopters to fan out and explore the region far more fully too. I mean the thing was designed to deliver LOTs of mass to the surface of Mars, so why not take advantage of the “free” ride.

    ESA could play a role in contributing some rovers and drones and new fangled sensors etc. And for this approach I’d suggest they also develop a stationary Chem Lab with far more advanced capabilities for in situ analysis than any mobile platform can carry (especially drones), which they could all circle back to in order to get much more data than would otherwise be possible.

    This would be a far more worthy use of the additional billions a non Starship solution would cost for just getting the current samples back imho.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Before this mission is finally launched, one of Elon’s employees will probably bring the samples back in his/her carry-on, so what’s the hurry?

  • John

    That they would curtail the travels of a nuclear powered Mars rover for this sounds beyond asinine to me.

  • Doubting Thomas

    We need Bob Zubrin’s idea about a super X prize. Say $1B to up to 4 teams ($250M each) to demonstrate some heavy lift of at least X capability or some robotic surface recovery operation by some near term date. Then $4B to return at least half of samples by some farther out date (say 2030 – you pick) and a bonus of $1B for return of all samples by said date. Lack of participation in first contest does not close out participation in Big Event.

    Then it doesn’t matter if the samples returned 1) robotically in one ship or 20 ships or 2) Crewed in one ship or 20 ships by 1 person or 100 persons or 3) Returned via Mr. Spock and Ensign Chekov beaming to Mars and returning via Transporter,

    NMT $6B spent. Saving $5B or more and given how programs work probably saving up to $20B.

  • Mike Thompson

    Dust off the original Red Dragon plans:

    Retrofit a Dragon capsule to hold a rocket in its center. This will carry the samples back up to orbit.
    Fill the rest of the capsule with a handful of drones, wheeled, helicopter or both, that will recover the samples.
    Finish testing the Super-Draco engines so the Dragon capsule can execute a soft landing on Mars after entry.
    Place the whole thing on a Falcon Heavy and launch it towards Mars.
    Build and launch two just for redundancy because it’s not that much more expensive.

    Am I missing anything?

  • Trent Castanaveras

    Here’s a thought, since NASA will no doubt be a major player in the first Martian Starship flights and consequently in the founding and construction of the first Martian settlement:

    Bring the astronaut/scientists and equipment to Mars in Starship. Do direct sampling of an infinite number of sites for a fraction of the time and energy being put into this sample return fiasco. Oh, and build a human friendly habitat at the same time.

    SpaceX’s timeline may end up being relatively close to that of the proposed MSR; if some samples MUST be returned to Earth, do as Ray Van Dune says and pack them into a carry on bag. We’re going anyway; why overcomplicate things?

  • Richard M

    If you want to use Starship to retrieve these samples directly, the first thing you’d have to do is to radically revise NASA’s planetary protection protocols. Because there is simply no way to sterilize a Starship to the level required for the Category IVb requirements of Jezero Crater.

  • Rockribbed1

    Send Starship with the scientists. It’s much safer to infect Mars with with terrestrial life than bringing Martian life home

  • MDN

    Mike Thompson

    I concur Red Dragon would be the easiest. I noted how NASA screwed this all up when they forced Crew Dragon to use parachutes instead of Super Draco retro landing. when the sample return budget starting ballooning a la all Big Space ventures. SpaceX was planning to test Red Dragon on their own dime with that plan so the incremental cost would have been meager by comparison to all other options. when this mission came on the radar screen.

    Richard M. That is an interesting point, but I surely hope it goes down in flames. Otherwise this will be used to block any development on Mars by inter planetary enviro nuts. I doubt seriously that the several Soviet landers of yesteryear were prepared to these protocols, so maybe that’s a caveat that could persuade the cats already out of the bag.

  • Allan

    MDN, Trent, and Rockribbed are all touching on an efficient and less expensive solution… Send a lab, automated or crewed, to Mars to do most all of the analysis that could be done on Earth. The samples in question are not that special, are they? Someone or something could go out and scoop up any of the Martian soil, bring it to the lab, and test it there. That way there would be no chance of contaminating Earth with some horrible creature like in the movie Life.
    Keep in mind we have yet to accomplish landing, then taking off, from any other planet. Makes me wonder if the sample return is just an excuse or a motivation to push the landing and take-off technology forward.

  • Richard M

    Just to clarify: I didn’t mean to say I agreed with current planetary protection policy as promulgated by NASA at present. Just to note what it is, and that some special effort would be needed to alter it, in order for any Starship to make a landing at Jezero Crater or its environs.

    But it’s worth noting that the protocols exist not only to minimize the chances of so-called “backward contamination,” that is, introduction of alien life forms back on Earth. It is also about protecting the integrity of any samples that Perseverance has collected. If you cannot prevent *that*, then anything you collect in those sample tubes has about as much value as Martian meteorites we have collected here on Earth. If you’re searching for life, the exposed surface that comes in contact with samples has to be sterilized to <30 spores. If the samples involve liquid water, the whole vehicle has to meet the <30 spore limit.

    Bearing all this in mind, I wonder if it wouldn't be *politically* easier to use Starship to deliver a MAV lander to low Mars orbit, taking advantage of its far greater mass and volume capabilities to permit a faster, less costly design of said lander. You're asking Starship to undertake less at an earlier stage of its development; you don't have to worry about perfecting EDL on Mars yet, in situ refueling, or planetary protection conformity. All it would have to do is to get the lander to Mars orbit – and, maybe, returning its MAV to Earth orbit, if there's enough propellant left for that. But maybe you could send a special tanker for that.

    In the long run, of course, Starship is going to permit vastly greater study of Martian terrestrial and atmospheric samples in a much more direct way!

  • Edward

    Allan wrote: “MDN, Trent, and Rockribbed are all touching on an efficient and less expensive solution… Send a lab, automated or crewed, to Mars to do most all of the analysis that could be done on Earth.

    I think people are missing the objective of the exercise. It isn’t to analyze specific samples returned to Earth for analysis; it is to prove that robotic exploration is less expensive than manned exploration.

    Until half a decade ago, NASA’s proposal for getting man to Mars was estimated to cost $500 billion (1990s dollars), just for a single feet-on-the-ground mission, like Apollo 11. This was the reality when Perseverance was proposed with the Sample Return Mission as a separate mission. Getting samples back from Mars was supposed to cost two orders of magnitude less than the same manned mission.

    Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has changed all that with its proposed Starship. The company took Robert Zubrin’s proposal for getting man to Mars for 1/10th of NASA’s proposal and found ways to do it even better and even more economically.

    The second objective is the standard NASA objective to bring in international partners. This usually (or always) results in greater costs to NASA’s part of the mission.

    As we should expect with any privately funded, capitalist, commercial, free market endeavor, the capitalists have innovated better and more economical means to an even better end, and they don’t require taxpayer money to do it.

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