How to Get Mars Rocks to Earth for Cheap? NASA Shrugs

Space agency seeks ideas to revive Mars Sample Return Mission
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 16, 2024 1:14 PM CDT
How to Get Mars Rocks to Earth for Cheap? NASA Shrugs
This photo provided by NASA shows the Perseverance Mars rover collecting a sample from a rock called "Bunsen Peak" using a coring bit on the end of its robotic arm on March 11, 2024.   (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU via AP)

Calling all innovators: NASA is looking for out-of-the-box ideas about how to get Martian rocks to Earth in the next 15 years without breaking the bank. The space agency says it can't achieve this top priority before 2040 with the $5 billion to $7 billion in funding currently outlined. It could do it with $11 billion, but that's "too expensive," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Monday, adding he would not allow other space missions to be "cannibalized" by the Mars Sample Return Mission, even if it is, as the BBC reports, "the single most important priority in planetary exploration." NASA could instead opt to delay the mission, but that's not particularly palatable. Waiting until 2040 is "unacceptably too long," Nelson said Monday, asking for input on a better plan.

NASA initially planned to send a lander to Mars to retrieve rock samples from the Perseverance rover and launch them into space, where they could be collected by a European-built Earth Return Orbiter and returned to Earth in 2033. But an independent review published in September found a "near zero" possibility of NASA maintaining its schedule, per Voice of America. Even if it was possible, costs would likely reach between $8 billion and $11 billion, more than twice the initial estimate, the review found. NASA doesn't disagree but it also doesn't want to delay for seven years to examine Martian samples for signs of life considering "it's the decade of the 2040s that we're going to be landing astronauts on Mars," Nelson said, per the Washington Post.

"We are looking at out-of-the-box possibilities that could return the samples earlier and at a lower cost," said Dr. Nicola Fox, head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "This is definitely a very ambitious goal, and we're going to need to go after some very innovative new possibilities for design, and certainly leave no stone unturned." There's currently talk of "a smaller, simpler Mars rocket," per the BBC. Meanwhile, scientists are trying to contain their excitement about one particular rock uncovered by Perseverance in Jezero Crater, at the base of an ancient lake. The "Bunsen Peak" rock is rich in carbonate and silica, two minerals excellent at preserving signs of microbial life, and is thought to be among the oldest samples collected so far, per (More NASA stories.)

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