NASA Begins Planning Mars Sample Return Mission

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NASA has sent numerous robotic explorers to Mars over the years, examining samples and surveying the fascinating geology of the red planet. Still, we could learn much more with Mars samples to examine in detail here on Earth. The recently launched Perseverance rover will lay the groundwork by collecting samples for return to our planet. NASA has now announced it will work with the European Space Agency (ESA) to get those samples back to Earth, but it won’t be cheap. 

Perseverance, previously known as Mars 2020, borrows heavily from the Curiosity rover’s wildly successful design. When it lands on Mars early next year, Perseverance will begin scouring the planet for evidence of life. Along the way, it will scoop up bits of the planet and store them in 43 sample tubes inside the belly of the rover. The rover has a 2-meter robotic arm that will be important in much of its work, but there’s a smaller 0.5-meter arm underneath Perseverance that will assist with collecting core samples in the tubes.

The rover won’t do any analysis of these samples on the ground — it will check the volume and take a photo of each tube, and then it’ll wait on the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. NASA has announced the MSR has entered Phase A development during which NASA and the ESA will decide on specific features of the mission. 

NASA techs loading the sample return tubes into Perseverance.

The current plan calls for NASA to contribute a lander and rover, and the ESA will build an orbiter. Following the projected launch in 2026, the lander would touch down near the Perseverance landing site in Jezero Crater. Its task will be to rendezvous with the older rover on the surface (a first of robot Mars exploration). Depending on the state of the Mars 2020 mission, Perseverance might even be able to meet the MSR rover half-way. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the MSR mission will be getting the samples off the surface of Mars. The rover will have a small rocket onboard that can break free of Mars’ weak gravity and meet up with the ESA orbiter. While independent reviews support NASA’s decision to move forward with the mission, some worry the high cost could harm other programs. NASA projects it will cost $2.9-3.3 billion to get those 43 sample tubes back to Earth. The independent review board says it’ll be closer to $3.8-4.4 billion. NASA expects to complete the latest planetary science decadal survey in 2022, and that report will no doubt make suggestions on exploration priorities for the next decade. NASA might not be able to act on all the suggestions if MSR has gobbled up its budget.

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