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Author Topic:   NASA/ESA Mars sample return missions
Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
NASA Moves Forward with Campaign to Return Mars Samples to Earth

NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) are moving to the next phase in a campaign to deepen understanding of whether life ever existed on Mars and, in turn, better understand the origins of life on Earth.

NASA has approved the Mars Sample Return (MSR) multi-mission effort to advance to Phase A, preparing to bring the first pristine samples from Mars back to Earth. During this phase, the program will mature critical technologies and make critical design decisions, as well as assess industry partnerships.

The first endeavor of this campaign is in progress. NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover launched in July and is set to land on the Red Planet Feb. 18, 2021. The car-size rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life. Using a coring drill at the end of its robotic arm, Perseverance has the capability to gather samples of Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust), and hermetically seal them in collection tubes. Perseverance can deposit these samples at designated locations on the Martian surface or store them internally.

In the next steps of the MSR campaign, NASA and ESA will provide respective components for a Sample Retrieval Lander mission and an Earth Return Orbiter mission, with launches planned in the latter half of this decade. The Sample Retrieval Lander mission will deliver a Sample Fetch Rover and Mars Ascent Vehicle to the surface of Mars. The rover will retrieve the samples and transport them to the lander. The Perseverance rover also provides a potential capability for delivery of collection tubes to the lander. A robotic arm on the lander will transfer the samples into a container embedded in the nose of the Mars Ascent Vehicle.

Once sealed, the system will prepare for the first launch from another planet. In Mars orbit, the Earth Return Orbiter will rendezvous with and capture the sealed sample container, and then place the samples in an additional high-reliability containment capsule for return to Earth in the early 2030s.

"Returning samples of Mars to Earth has been a goal of planetary scientists since the early days of the space age, and the successful completion of this MSR key decision point is an important next step in transforming this goal into reality," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "MSR is a complex campaign, and it encapsulates the very essence of pioneering space exploration – pushing the boundaries of what's capable and, in so doing, furthering our understanding of our place in the universe."

Bringing Mars samples back to Earth will allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars, and will allow future generations to study them using technology not yet available. Curating the samples on Earth will allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades.

The MSR campaign also advances NASA's efforts to send humans to the Red Planet. It will involve landing heavier spacecraft on the Martian surface than ever before. It would also involve launch from and rendezvous operations around another planet for the first time. With the Artemis program, NASA will land the first woman and next man on the lunar surface in 2024 to prepare for humanity's next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.

"MSR will foster significant engineering advances for humanity and advance technologies needed to successfully realize the first round-trip mission to another planet," said Jeff Gramling, Mars Sample Return program director at NASA Headquarters. "The scientific advances offered by pristine Martian samples through MSR are unprecedented, and this mission will contribute to NASA's eventual goal of sending humans to Mars."

NASA established a Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board earlier this year to evaluate its early concepts for partnership with ESA to return the first samples from another planet. The board's report with NASA's responses released in October found the agency is now ready to undertake its Mars sample return campaign. NASA convened a second group of independent experts, the MSR Standing Review Board (SRB), to provide ongoing assessment of the MSR program. The SRB also recommended the program move into Phase A.

"Beginning the formulation work of Phase A is a momentous step for our team, albeit one of several to come," said Bobby Braun, Mars Sample Return program manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which leads development for NASA's MSR effort. "These reviews strengthened our plan forward and this milestone signals creation of a tangible approach for MSR built upon the extraordinary capabilities of the NASA centers, our ESA partners, and industry."

ESA is providing the Earth Return Orbiter, Sample Fetch Rover, and the lander's robotic arm to the partnership. NASA is providing the Sample Retrieval Lander, Mars Ascent Vehicle, and the Capture/Containment and Return System payload on the Earth Return Orbiter. Multiple NASA Centers are involved in this effort, contributing in their areas of strength.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
NASA Awards Mars Ascent Propulsion System Contract for Sample Return

NASA has awarded the Mars Ascent Propulsion System (MAPS) contract to Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation of Elkton, Maryland, to provide propulsion support and products for spaceflight missions at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Coupled with the successful touchdown of the Mars Perseverance rover, this award moves NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) one step closer to realizing Mars Sample Return (MSR), a highly ambitious planetary exploration program that will build upon decades of science, knowledge, and experience of Mars exploration.

Above: This illustration shows a concept of how the NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle, carrying tubes containing rock and soil samples, could be launched from the surface of Mars in one step of the Mars sample return mission.

The cost-plus, fixed-fee contract has a potential mission services value of $60.2 million and a maximum potential value of $84.5 million. Work on MAPS begins immediately with a 14-month base period, followed by two option periods that may be exercised at NASA's discretion.

In the next steps of the MSR campaign, NASA and ESA will provide components for a Sample Retrieval Lander mission and an Earth Return Orbiter mission. The Sample Retrieval Lander mission will deliver a Sample Fetch Rover and Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to the surface of Mars. Marshall is responsible for the MSR Program's MAV element, which is a two-stage vehicle that will be a critical element in supporting MSR to retrieve and return the samples that the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will collect for return to Earth. The Martian environment will be a significant factor in the design, development, manufacturing, testing, and qualification of two different solid rocket motors with multiple deliveries of each. Through the MAPS contract, Northrop Grumman will provide the propulsion systems for the MAV, as well as other supporting equipment and logistics services.

Bringing Mars samples back to Earth will allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars, and will allow future generations to study them using technology not yet available. Curating the samples on Earth will allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
NASA Selects Developer for Rocket to Retrieve First Samples from Mars

NASA has awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Space of Littleton, Colorado, to build the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a small, lightweight rocket to launch rock, sediment, and atmospheric samples from the surface of the Red Planet. The award brings NASA a step closer to the first robotic round-trip to bring samples safely to Earth through the Mars Sample Return Program.

"This groundbreaking endeavor is destined to inspire the world when the first robotic round-trip mission retrieves a sample from another planet – a significant step that will ultimately help send the first astronauts to Mars," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. "America's investment in our Mars Sample Return program will fulfill a top priority planetary science goal and demonstrate our commitment to global partnerships, ensuring NASA remains a leader in exploration and discovery."

Set to become the first rocket fired off another planet, the MAV is a crucial part of a campaign to retrieve samples collected by NASA's Perseverance rover and deliver them to Earth for advanced study. NASA's Sample Retrieval Lander, another important part of the campaign, would carry the MAV to Mars' surface, landing near or in Jezero Crater to gather the samples cached by Perseverance. The samples would be returned to the lander, which would serve as the launch platform for the MAV. With the sample container secured, the MAV would then launch.

Once it reaches Mars orbit, the container would be captured by an ESA (European Space Agency) Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft outfitted with NASA's Capture, Containment, and Return System payload. The spacecraft would bring the samples to Earth safely and securely in the early- to mid-2030s.

"Committing to the Mars Ascent Vehicle represents an early and concrete step to hammer out the details of this ambitious project not just to land on Mars, but to take off from it," said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We are nearing the end of the conceptual phase for this Mars Sample Return mission, and the pieces are coming together to bring home the first samples from another planet. Once on Earth, they can be studied by state-of-the-art tools too complex to transport into space."

Returning a sample is complicated, and MAV faces some complex development challenges. It must be robust enough to withstand the harsh Mars environment and adaptable enough to work with multiple spacecraft. It also must be small enough to fit inside the Sample Retrieval Lander. The Sample Retrieval Lander is planned for launch no earlier than 2026 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Lockheed Martin Space will provide multiple MAV test units and a flight unit. Work under the contract includes designing, developing, testing, and evaluating the integrated MAV system, and designing and developing of the rocket's ground support equipment.

The cost-plus-fixed-fee Mars Ascent Vehicle Integrated System (MAVIS) contract has a potential value of $194 million. The performance period begins no later than Feb. 25 and will extend six years.

NASA's Mars Sample Return Campaign promises to revolutionize our understanding of Mars by bringing scientifically selected samples for study using the most sophisticated instruments around the world. The campaign would fulfill a solar system exploration goal, a high priority since the 1970s and in the last two National Academy of Sciences Planetary Decadal Surveys.

This strategic NASA and ESA partnership would be the first mission to return samples from another planet and the first launch from the surface of another planet. The samples collected by Perseverance during its exploration of an ancient river delta are thought to present the best opportunity to reveal the early evolution of Mars, including the potential for life.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
NASA, Partner Establish New Research Group for Mars Sample Return Program

Sixteen scientists from the U.S., Europe, Canada, and Japan have been chosen to help future samples from the Red Planet achieve their full potential.

NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), its partner in the Mars Sample Return Program, have established a new group of researchers to maximize the scientific potential of Mars rock and sediment samples that would be returned to Earth for in-depth analysis. Called the Mars Sample Return Campaign Science Group, the 16 researchers will function as a science resource for the campaign's project teams as well as for related Earth-based ground projects, such as sample recovery and curation.

"These 16 individuals will be the standard-bearers for Mars Sample Return science," said Michael Meyer, Mars Exploration Program lead scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "They will build the roadmap by which science for this historic endeavor is accomplished – including establishing the processes for sample-related decision-making and designing the procedures that will allow the worldwide scientific community to become involved with these first samples from another world."

The members of the Mars Sample Return Campaign Science Group are:

  • Laura Rodriguez – NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Southern California

  • Michael Thorpe – Johnson Space Center Engineering, Technology and Science at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston / Texas State University, San Marcos

  • Audrey Bouvier – Bayerisches Geoinstitut, Universität Bayreuth, Germany

  • Andy Czaja – Department of Geology, University of Cincinnati

  • Nicolas Dauphas – Origins Laboratory, the University of Chicago

  • Katherine French – Central Energy Resources Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey, Denver

  • Lydia Hallis – School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, UK

  • Rachel Harris – Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Boston

  • Ernst Hauber – Institute of Planetary Research, German Aerospace Center, Germany

  • Suzanne Schwenzer – School of Earth, Environment and Ecosystem Sciences, the Open University, UK

  • Andrew Steele – Earth and Planetary Laboratory, Carnegie Institution of Washington

  • Kimberly Tait – Department of Natural History, Royal Ontario Museum, Canada

  • Tomohiro Usui – Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

  • Jessica Vanhomwegen – Laboratory for Urgent Response to Biological Threats, Institut Pasteur, France

  • Michael Veibel – Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Michigan State University

  • Maria-Paz Zorzano Mier – Astrobiology Center, National Institute for Aerospace Technology, Spain

Robert Pearlman
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posted 07-27-2022 10:45 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
NASA release
NASA Will Inspire World When It Returns Mars Samples to Earth in 2033

NASA has finished the system requirements review for its Mars Sample Return Program, which is nearing completion of the conceptual design phase. During this phase, the program team evaluated and refined the architecture to return the scientifically selected samples, which are currently in the collection process by NASA's Perseverance rover in the Red Planet's Jezero Crater.

Above: This illustration shows a concept for multiple robots that would team up to ferry to Earth samples collected from the Mars surface by NASA's Mars Perseverance rover. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The architecture for the campaign, which includes contributions from the European Space Agency (ESA), is expected to reduce the complexity of future missions and increase probability of success.

"The conceptual design phase is when every facet of a mission plan gets put under a microscope," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "There are some significant and advantageous changes to the plan, which can be directly attributed to Perseverance's recent successes at Jezero and the amazing performance of our Mars helicopter."

This advanced mission architecture takes into consideration a recently updated analysis of Perseverance's expected longevity. Perseverance will be the primary means of transporting samples to NASA's Sample Retrieval Lander carrying the Mars Ascent Vehicle and ESA's Sample Transfer Arm.

As such, the Mars Sample Return campaign will no longer include the Sample Fetch Rover or its associated second lander. The Sample Retrieval Lander will include two sample recovery helicopters, based on the design of the Ingenuity helicopter, which has performed 29 flights at Mars and survived over a year beyond its original planned lifetime. The helicopters will provide a secondary capability to retrieve samples cached on the surface of Mars.

The ESA Earth Return Orbiter and its NASA-provided Capture, Containment, and Return System remain vital elements of the program architecture.

With planned launch dates for the Earth Return Orbiter and Sample Retrieval Lander in fall 2027 and summer 2028, respectively, the samples are expected to arrive on Earth in 2033.

With its architecture solidified during this conceptual design phase, the program is expected to move into its preliminary design phase this October. In this phase, expected to last about 12 months, the program will complete technology development and create engineering prototypes of the major mission components.

This refined concept for the Mars Sample Return campaign was presented to the delegates from the 22 participating states of Europe's space exploration program, Terrae Novae, in May. At their next meeting in September, the states will consider the discontinuation of the development of the Sample Fetch Rover.

"ESA is continuing at full speed the development of both the Earth Return Orbiter that will make the historic round-trip from Earth to Mars and back again; and the Sample Transfer Arm that will robotically place the sample tubes aboard the Orbiting Sample Container before its launch from the surface of the Red Planet," said David Parker, ESA director of Human and Robotic Exploration.

The respective contributions to the campaign are contingent upon available funding from the U.S. and ESA participating states. More formalized agreements between the two agencies will be established in the next year.

"Working together on historic endeavors like Mars Sample Return not only provides invaluable data about our place in the universe but brings us closer together right here on Earth," said Zurbuchen.

The first step in the Mars Sample Return Campaign is already in progress. Since it landed at Jezero Crater Feb. 18, 2021, the Perseverance rover has collected 11 scientifically-compelling rock core samples and one atmospheric sample.

Bringing Mars samples to Earth would allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars and would enable future generations to study them. Curating the samples on Earth would also allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades. This strategic NASA and ESA partnership will fulfill a solar system exploration goal, a high priority since the 1970s and in the last three National Academy of Sciences Planetary Science Decadal Surveys.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
NASA and ESA Agree on Next Steps to Return Mars Samples to Earth

The agency's Perseverance rover will establish the first sample depot on Mars.

The next step in the unprecedented campaign to return scientifically selected samples from Mars was made on Oct. 19 with a formal agreement between NASA and its partner ESA (European Space Agency). The two agencies will proceed with the creation of a sample tube depot on Mars. The sample depot, or cache, will be at "Three Forks," an area located near the base of an ancient river delta in Jezero Crater.

Above: This annotated image from NASA’s Perseverance shows the location of the first sample depot – where the Mars rover will deposit a group of sample tubes for possible future return to Earth – in an area of Jezero Crater called Three Forks. The image was taken Aug. 29, 2022. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This cache will contain samples from carefully selected rocks on the surface of Mars – samples that can help tell the story of Jezero Crater's history and how Mars evolved, and could perhaps even contain signs of ancient life. Scientists believe the cored samples from the delta's fine-grained sedimentary rocks – deposited in a lake billions of years ago – are the mostly likely to contain indicators of whether microbial life existed when Mars' climate was much different than what it is today.

"Never before has a scientifically curated collection of samples from another planet been collected and placed for return to Earth," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "NASA and ESA have reviewed the proposed site and the Mars samples that will be deployed for this cache as soon as next month. When that first tube is positioned on the surface, it will be a historic moment in space exploration."

The cache of samples – a duplicate set of the collection that Perseverance will retain on board – is one part of a robust plan to ensure mission success. The Perseverance rover will be the primary means to convey the collected samples to the Mars launch vehicle as part of the campaign. The Three Forks depot will serve as a backup, hosting the duplicate set.

"Choosing the first depot on Mars makes this exploration campaign very real and tangible. Now we have a place to revisit with samples waiting for us there," said David Parker, ESA director of Human and Robotic Exploration. "That we can implement this plan so early in the campaign is a testament to the skill of the international team of engineers and scientists working on Perseverance and Mars Sample Return. The first depot of Mars samples can be considered a major de-risking step for the Mars Sample Return Campaign."

The first step in the campaign is already in progress. Since Perseverance landed at Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, the rover has explored 8.2 miles (13.2 kilometers) of Martian surface and collected 14 rock-core samples during its first two science campaigns. In the course of its first science campaign, the rover explored the crater's floor – a former lakebed – finding igneous rock, which forms deep underground from magma or during volcanic activity at the surface. The second science campaign has been highlighted by the investigation of sedimentary rocks, formed when particles of various sizes settled in the once-watery environment.

The rover has also collected one atmospheric sample and three witness tubes. Witness tubes contain material that helps identify potential terrestrial contamination in the tubes that may have come from the rover during sampling operations.

"While a significant mission milestone will have taken place once those tubes are dropped, it doesn't mean Perseverance explorations or sample collection has concluded – not by a long shot," said Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena, California. "Next, we'll be headed up to the top of the delta to an area that from satellite imagery appears geologically rich, performing science investigations and collecting more rock cores. Mars Sample Return is going to have a lot of great stuff to choose from."

In another important milestone, the Mars Sample Return Program entered the Preliminary Design and Technology Completion Phase, known as Phase B, on Oct. 1. During this phase, the campaign focuses on completing technology development, engineering prototyping, assessments of software and heritage hardware, and other risk-mitigation activities.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle Continues Progress Toward Mars Sample Return

NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) recently reached some major milestones in support of the Mars Sample Return program. The Mars Ascent Vehicle would be the first launch of a rocket from the surface of another planet. The team developing MAV conducted successful tests of the first and second stage solid rocket motors needed for the launch.

Above: A development motor based on the second-stage solid rocket motor design for NASA's Mars Ascent Vehicle undergoes testing March 29, 2023, at Northrop Grumman's facility in Elkton, Maryland. The two-stage MAV rocket is an important part of the joint plan between NASA and ESA to bring scientifically-selected Martian samples to Earth in the early 2030s. (NASA)

Mars Sample Return will bring scientifically selected samples to Earth for study using the most sophisticated instrumentation around the world. This strategic partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) features the first mission to return samples from another planet. The samples currently being collected by NASA's Perseverance Rover during its exploration of an ancient river delta have the potential to reveal the early evolution of Mars, including the potential for ancient life.

Managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, MAV is currently set to launch in June 2028, with the samples set to arrive on Earth in the early 2030s. The Mars Sample Return Program is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.

For the MAV to be successful, the team performs extensive testing, analysis, and review of MAV's design and components. The vehicle will travel aboard the Sample Retrieval Lander during launch from Earth, a two-year journey to Mars, and nearly a year of receiving samples collected by Perseverance.

After the Sample Transfer Arm on the lander loads the samples from Perseverance into a sample container in the nose of the rocket, the MAV will launch from Mars into orbit around the planet, releasing the sample container for the Earth Return Orbiter to capture.

The MAV launch will be accomplished using two solid rocket motors – SRM1 and SRM2. SRM1 will propel MAV away from the Red Planet's surface, while SRM2 will spin MAV's second stage to place the sample container in the correct Mars orbit, allowing the Earth Return Orbiter to find it.

To test the solid rocket motor designs, the MAV team prepared development motors. This allowed the team to see how the motors will perform and if any adjustments should be made before they are built for the mission. The SRM2 development motor was tested on March 29, 2023, at the Northrop Grumman facility in Elkton, Maryland. Then, SRM1's development motor was tested on April 7 at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

SRM1's test was conducted in a vacuum chamber that was cooled to minus-20 degrees Celsius (minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit) and allowed the team to also test a supersonic splitline nozzle, part of SRM1's thrust vector control system. Most gimballing solid rocket motor nozzles are designed in a way that can't handle the extreme cold MAV will experience, so the Northrop Grumman team had to come up with something that could: a state-of-the-art trapped ball nozzle featuring a supersonic split line.

After testing and disassembling the SRM1 development motor, analysis showed the team's ingenuity proved successful.

"This test demonstrates our nation has the capacity to develop a launch vehicle that can successfully be lightweight enough to get to Mars and robust enough to put a set of samples into orbit to bring back to Earth," said MAV Propulsion Manager Benjamin Davis at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "The hardware is telling us that our technology is ready to proceed with development."

In fact, the supersonic splitline nozzle has achieved the sixth of nine technology readiness levels – known as TRL-6 -- developed by NASA. TRL-1 is the starting point at which there is just an idea for a new technology, while TRL-9 means the technology has been developed, tested, and successfully used for an in-space mission.

Davis said the supersonic splitline nozzle achieved TRL-6 through vacuum bench testing and full-scale hot fire testing in April. Results are being independently evaluated and will be confirmed in August.

The supersonic splitline nozzle will also undergo qualification testing to make sure it can handle the intense shaking and vibration of launch, the near vacuum of space, and the extreme heat and cold expected during MAV's trip.

In addition to motor testing, the MAV team recently conducted its Preliminary Design Review, which was a four-day, in-depth review of MAV's overall design. Mars Ascent Vehicle Project Manager Stephen Gaddis said MAV passed that review, which means the team can now focus on continuing to improve MAV before its Critical Design Review next summer.

NASA Marshall is designing, building, and testing MAV along with the project's two primary contractors, Lockheed Martin Space and Northrop Grumman. Lockheed Martin Space is the overall system integrator and provides multiple subsystems, and Northrop Grumman provides the first stage and second stage main propulsion systems. The Mars Sample Return Program is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California.

Robert Pearlman
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NASA release
NASA Sets Path to Return Mars Samples, Seeks Innovative Designs

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared on Monday the agency's path forward on the Mars Sample Return program, including seeking innovative designs to return valuable samples from Mars to Earth. Such samples will not only help us understand the formation and evolution of our solar system but can be used to prepare for future human explorers and to aid in NASA's search for signs of ancient life.

Over the last quarter century, NASA has engaged in a systematic effort to determine the early history of Mars and how it can help us understand the formation and evolution of habitable worlds, including Earth. As part of that effort, Mars Sample Return has been a long-term goal of international planetary exploration for the past two decades. NASA's Perseverance rover has been collecting samples for later collection and return to Earth since it landed on Mars in 2021.

"Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions NASA has ever undertaken. The bottom line is, an $11 billion budget is too expensive, and a 2040 return date is too far away," said Nelson. "Safely landing and collecting the samples, launching a rocket with the samples off another planet – which has never been done before – and safely transporting the samples more than 33 million miles back to Earth is no small task. We need to look outside the box to find a way ahead that is both affordable and returns samples in a reasonable timeframe."

The agency also has released NASA's response to a Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board report from September 2023. This includes: an updated mission design with reduced complexity; improved resiliency; risk posture; stronger accountability and coordination; and an overall budget likely in the $8 billion to $11 billion range. Given the Fiscal Year 2025 budget and anticipated budget constraints, as well as the need to maintain a balanced science portfolio, the current mission design will return samples in 2040.

To achieve the ambitious goal of returning the key samples to Earth earlier and at a lower cost, the agency is asking the NASA community to work together to develop a revised plan that leverages innovation and proven technology. Additionally, NASA soon will solicit architecture proposals from industry that could return samples in the 2030s, and lowers cost, risk, and mission complexity.

"NASA does visionary science – and returning diverse, scientifically-relevant samples from Mars is a key priority," said Nicky Fox, associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "To organize a mission at this level of complexity, we employ decades of lessons on how to run a large mission, including incorporating the input we get from conducting independent reviews. Our next steps will position us to bring this transformational mission forward and deliver revolutionary science from Mars -- providing critical new insights into the origins and evolution of Mars, our solar system, and life on Earth."

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NASA release
NASA Exploring Alternative Mars Sample Return Methods

NASA is moving forward with ten studies to examine more affordable and faster methods of bringing samples from Mars' surface back to Earth as part of the agency's Mars Sample Return Program. As part of this effort, NASA will award a firm-fixed-price contract for up to $1.5 million to conduct 90-day studies to seven industry proposers.

Additionally, NASA centers, CalTech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory are producing studies. Once completed, NASA will assess all studies to consider alterations or enhancements to the Mars Sample Return architecture.

"Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions NASA has undertaken, and it is critical that we carry it out more quickly, with less risk, and at a lower cost," said Nelson. "I'm excited to see the vision that these companies, centers and partners present as we look for fresh, exciting, and innovative ideas to uncover great cosmic secrets from the Red Planet."

Over the last quarter century, NASA has engaged in a systematic effort to determine the early history of Mars and how it can help us understand the formation and evolution of habitable worlds, including Earth. As part of that effort, Mars Sample Return has been a long-term goal of international planetary exploration for the past two decades. NASA's Perseverance rover has been collecting samples for later collection and return to Earth since it landed on Mars in 2021.

The following companies and proposals were selected from among those that responded to an April 15 request for proposals:

  • Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado: "Lockheed Martin Rapid Mission Design Studies for Mars Sample Return"

  • SpaceX in Hawthorne, California: "Enabling Mars Sample Return With Starship"

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne in Huntsville, Alabama: "A High-Performance Liquid Mars Ascent Vehicle, Using Highly Reliable and Mature Propulsion Technologies, to Improve Program Affordability and Schedule"

  • Blue Origin in Monrovia, California: "Leveraging Artemis for Mars Sample Return"

  • Quantum Space, in Rockville, Maryland: "Quantum Anchor Leg Mars Sample Return Study"

  • Northrop Grumman in Elkton, Maryland: "High TRL MAV Propulsion Trades and Concept Design for MSR Rapid Mission Design"

  • Whittinghill Aerospace in Camarillo, California: "A Rapid Design Study for the MSR Single Stage Mars Ascent Vehicle"
NASA's Mars Sample Return is a strategic partnership with ESA (the European Space Agency). Returning scientifically selected samples to Earth for study using the most sophisticated instruments around the world can revolutionize our understanding of Mars and would fulfill one of the highest priority solar system exploration goals as identified by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.

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