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Senate puts Mars Sample Return program on notice

An illustration of the proposed Mars Sample Return Program architecture. Credit: NASA

An illustration of the proposed Mars Sample Return Program architecture. Credit: NASA

The United States Senate is urging NASA to take immediate steps to rein in the budget of the Mars Sample Return mission, else the program faces cancellation.

Mars Sample Return, or MSR, is a program in partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency to bring back samples from the Red Planet. Those samples are currently being cached by the Perseverance rover, which has been exploring Jezero Crater since February 2021.

Over the last several years, Congress has allocated some $1.7 billion on the development of the ambitious project, which has yet to undergo a preliminary design review. Originally, the lifetime cost of the program was estimated to be around $5.3 billion with launch projected in the late 2020s. However, a story by Ars Technica suggests the total cost of MSR could be around $10 billion when all is said and done.

An illustration of the Mars Sample Retrieval Lander that would carry a 10-foot (3-meter) ascent rocket to Jezero Crater. Credit: NASA

An illustration of the Mars Sample Retrieval Lander that would carry a 10-foot (3-meter) ascent rocket to Jezero Crater. Credit: NASA

Senate concerned about ballooning costs

Recently, the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, responsible for overseeing NASA’s funding, expressed its concern over the escalating costs and persistent delays associated with MSR. In a July 13 report accompanying its proposed NASA budget for 2024, the committee emphasized that despite previous funding to date, the project’s launch date continues to slip, straining NASA’s financial resources and compromising other critical scientific priorities.

As such, the Senate report directs NASA to provide a detailed funding plan within 180 days of the 2024 budget’s enactment within the originally estimated budget.

“If NASA is unable to provide the Committee with a MSR lifecycle cost profile within the $5,300,000,000 budget profile, NASA is directed to either provide options to de-scope or rework MSR or face mission cancellation,” the Senate report reads.

NASA also appears concerned about the increased cost and scope of the program. In April, the agency convened an independent review board to assess the program’s technical progress, schedule and costs. Its report is due in late August.

In the report, it notes the 2022 Planetary Science Decadal Survey said the completion of the MSR program should be the highest priority of NASA’s robotic exploration efforts. However, the survey also said this priority should not come at the expense of other high-priority science programs.

The Senate report urges NASA to provide the committee with an MSR lifecycle within the $5.3 billion budget profile. Credit: The US Senate

The Senate report urges NASA to provide the committee with an MSR lifecycle within the $5.3 billion budget profile. Credit: The US Senate

The Senate report raised concerns about the budgetary implications of the MSR mission, given its rising cost. The mission consumed a fifth of the NASA Planetary Science Devision’s budget in 2022 and more than a quarter in 2023.

In light of these concerns, the report has recommended allocating $300 million for the MSR project in fiscal year 2024, bringing the total cost to date to over $2 billion. For comparison, the original White House request released in March, proposed $949 million for the program.

The report emphasizes NASA must present a comprehensive funding profile within the established budget, or face potential cancellation or significant restructuring of the mission to reduce costs. In the event of mission cancellation, the Senate committee has outlined a reallocation plan for the funding originally designated for MSR.

This proposed reallocation includes $235 million for the Artemis program, $30 million for the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, $5 million for a flagship orbiter probe to explore Uranus, and $30 million for the Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission.

Additionally, if NASA proceeds with the MSR mission, the Senate “encourages” the agency to establish a Sample Receiving Facility in a state that does not currently host a NASA facility. The report said the prioritization of national laboratories under the stewardship of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, particularly those with proven bioanalytical scientific capabilities, biological and environmental research facilities, and biodefense capabilities.

To address these facility requirements, NASA is also directed to submit a comprehensive plan to the Senate no later than 180 days after the budget’s enactment. The report said the plan should outline the facility’s specifications, construction timeline, estimated costs and the criteria used to determine the facility’s location.

There is still a long way to go in the budgetary process for fiscal year 2024, which begins Oct. 1, 2023. The U.S. House of Representatives also has a proposed budget for NASA. It and the Senate will need to agree on a final budget to send to President Biden for his signature to make it law.

A map of the sample tubes dropped at “Three Forks Sample Depot” as a backup in case the Perseverance rover is unable to return to a sample retrieval lander. Under the current MSR plan, a drone would be able to pick up the backup tubes to bring to the lander. Credit: NASA

A map of the sample tubes dropped at “Three Forks Sample Depot” as a backup in case the Perseverance rover is unable to return to a sample retrieval lander. Under the current MSR plan, a drone would be able to pick up the backup tubes to bring to the lander. Credit: NASA

The current plan for Mars Sample Return

Returning samples from Mars technically began with the Perseverance rover. It is currently collecting samples at Jezero Crater.

Under the MSR program, a sample retrieval lander would touch down in Jezero Crater. The samples collected by Perseverance would be retrieved and loaded into a container on an ascent rocket, which would then blast into orbit around Mars.

In a 2022 architecture change, because of the success of the Ingenuity helicopter accompanying Perseverance, the MSR mission plan now includes two “Ingenuity-class” drones. They would be sent on the sample retrieval lander to act as a backup to the capabilities of Perseverance in delivering sample tubes to the lander. A “fetch rover” previously planned to be used in this backup capacity was scrapped.

Another spacecraft, built by the European Space Agency, would capture the sample container in Mars orbit before bringing them back to Earth for extensive analysis in state-of-the-art laboratories.

By examining these pristine Martian samples, scientists hope to gain unprecedented insights into the planet’s geological history, potential signs of past or present life and the possibility of habitability.

The current proposed timeline has the sample retrieval lander launching in 2028 and the orbiter in 2027 with the sample’s arrival on Earth in 2033.

However, all of that depends on the outcome of NASA’s independent review board and the agency’s ability to meet the Senate’s demands to control the program’s costs, should it become law. Otherwise, the samples currently being collected by Perseverance face an uncertain fate.

Video courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

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