NASA ‘Pauses’ Mars Sample Return to Get a Grip on the Mission

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NASA is withdrawing from its Mars Sample Return (MSR) program to develop a revised way to return Martian rocks to Earth, after the original plan was deemed unrealistic.

At a meeting of the Planetary Science Advisory Committee on Monday, NASA officials announced that the space agency is pausing work on MSR in response to a recent report citing rising costs and delays to the mission, Space Policy Online reported. Last week, three NASA centers involved in the MSR program were ordered to scale back activities related to the mission, said Sandra Connelly, NASA deputy associate administrator for science.

NASA requested $949.3 million for Mars Sample Return in its 2024 budget proposal. In response, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee responsible for overseeing NASA’s budget allocated $300 million to the mission and directed the space agency to submit an annual proposal. financing profile for MSR. If NASA fails to do so, it could face mission cancellation, the subcommittee wrote in its July report.

NASA’s ambitious plan to return rock samples from Mars is under heavy scrutiny for exceeding its original budget and timeline. In late September, an independent review board (IRB) released its final report on MSR, calling it a “very limited and challenging campaign,” with “unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the outset.”

In light of the report, NASA announced it was considering an alternative architecture for its complex mission and was forming a response team to address the report’s findings. The report stated that there is a “nearly zero probability” that the lander and orbiter would be ready for launch in 2028, and suggested that the full life cycle cost of the mission is likely to be between $8 billion and $11 billion, far more than original estimates. .

“We are pausing the program in fiscal year 2024 while we consider how we can best understand and then integrate the program and how we will change the program and respond to the IRB’s findings,” Jeff Gramling, MSR program director at NASA, is quoted in Space Policy Online at Monday’s meeting. “It’s not just about the architecture, it’s about how we position the program for long-term success and that may mean looking at organizational complexity, internal communications and how we are structured to deliver on this mission. accomplish.”

The Sample Return mission involves a group of robots, landers and orbiters working on and beyond Mars. NASA’s Perseverance rover is currently collecting rocky samples before storing them for a Sample Retrieval Lander to load them onto a small rocket, from which they will be launched to another Mars-orbiting spacecraft designed to drop them off at the earth in space. mid-2030s.

One of the alternative options outlined in the report proposes launching the lander and orbiter on separate dates, while another suggestion would transfer responsibility for the orbit entirely to the European Space Agency (NASA’s partner on the mission). . At a meeting in late October, Gramling also proposed reducing the amount of samples returned from Mars, which would result in a smaller container being built to house the samples and thus a smaller spacecraft tasked with returning them to bring to Earth. A smaller spacecraft could reduce the cost and complexity of the overall architecture, according to Gramling.

Despite its complex nature, NASA is unlikely to abandon its Mars sample retrieval mission, as it is a big part of the space agency’s plans to send its astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s. It is also of great value in providing important information about whether Mars could have harbored some form of life during its distant past, answering the ultimate question of whether life exists beyond Earth.

It may take a little longer before we get those answers, as the mission apparently still has a long way to go before it can deposit the otherworldly monsters on our planet.

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