NASA and ESA Make Changes to Mars Sample Return Mission

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The Perseverance rover is already a massive success after arriving on the red planet more than a year ago. It has collected samples, beamed back scientific results, and even helped to launch the first helicopter ever to fly on another planet. In a few years, it could make history again by playing its part in returning Martian samples to Earth. This joint operation by NASA and the ESA will be an incredible technical challenge, so the team has decided to simplify things and split the launches up, reports Gizmodo. Unfortunately, that means a longer wait. 

Perseverance is built on the same chassis as Curiosity, but it has a more modern suite of instruments. It also has an incredible sample return system that can collect and store rock cores in special ultra-clean tubes. NASA has had a few minor issues collecting those samples, but through trial and error, the collection in the rover’s belly is growing. Getting those samples back to Earth could vastly increase our knowledge of the red planet. That might sound counterintuitive when we have working robots actually on the planet, but you can’t send every possible instrument with the rover. With pristine samples on Earth, we can conduct more tests. 

The original plan was to send one mission with two critical parts of the return system: a rover and an ascent vehicle. The rover needs to meet up with Perseverance, collect the tubes, and then load them into the ascent vehicle. The US-built Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) will then take them into orbit where the ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter will pick them up on its way back to Earth. 

NASA techs loading the sample return tubes into Perseverance.

In a recent presentation, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, announced the agency would split the rover and MAV into separate missions. Even before Perseverance landed, a NASA review noted that sending both machines at once would require a new, wider payload launch vehicle. That would be a significant engineering challenge to land on the surface. Under the new plan announced by Zurbuchen, the MAV and rover will travel separately and rely on the flight-proven landing system from Perseverance and Curiosity. 

The original budget for the sample return was estimated at $3 billion, but independent analysis said it would be more like $4.4 billion. Zurbuchen didn’t give an update on the cost in his presentation, but an increase is likely. It’s also going to take longer to get the samples back to Earth. NASA had hoped to have bits of Mars by the late 2020s, but the two launches won’t happen until 2028 at the earliest. That would mean a 2033 timeline for the Martian samples.

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