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NASA aims to find creative solutions for an affordable Mars Sample Return Mission

NASA Mars

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the agency’s path forward on the Mars Sample Return program, including seeking innovative designs to return valuable samples from Mars to Earth. 

The Mars Sample Return program samples are not just rocks and dust. They are the key to unlocking the mysteries of our solar system’s formation and evolution. 

They will pave the way for future human explorers and aid in NASA’s quest to uncover signs of ancient life.

Over the last quarter century, NASA has been systematic in its effort to determine Mars’s early history and how it can help us understand the formation and evolution of habitable worlds, including Earth. 

As part of that effort, the 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 of 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 think creatively to find an affordable way to proceed and return samples within a reasonable timeframe.”

The agency has carefully considered the recommendations of the Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board report from September 2023. 

As a result, they have updated the mission design to reduce complexity, improve resiliency, and strengthen accountability and coordination. 

The mission’s overall budget is likely between $8 billion and $11 billion. 

Due to budget constraints and the need to maintain a balanced science portfolio, the current mission design is expected to return samples in 2040.

To return the key samples to Earth earlier and at a lower cost, the agency is asking the NASA community to collaborate on developing a revised plan that leverages innovation and proven technology. 

Additionally, NASA will soon solicit architecture proposals from industry that could return samples in the 2030s and lower 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 of the 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. 

NASA’s 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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