NASA has announced it is moving ahead with the next phase of an exciting development. Phase A of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) programme will commence, and focus will focus on initial designs of the missions and key technologies.
Those missions include a sample return lander, whose development will be led by NASA with a rover provided by the European Space Agency, and an ESA-led orbiter with a sample collection system provided by NASA.
The current plans entail both the lander and orbiter launching in 2026. The lander would touch down near the landing site of the Mars 2020 mission, with the fetch rover collecting samples cached by that mission. The Mars 2020 rover – named Perseverance – may also deliver samples to the lander. Those samples would be placed in a container on a small rocket on the lander, launching them into orbit around Mars. The orbiter will then collect the sample container and return it to Earth by 2031.
Planetary scientists have raised concern for the cost of MSR, as this may affect the rest of NASA’s planetary portfolio. This includes NASA’s ability to start any other large-scale missions that are recommended by the ongoing planetary science decadal survey.
“This is a very important topic,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, during a town hall meeting Dec. 14 that was part of the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), in response to a question from an attendee on the effect of MSR on the overall planetary program.
“I certainly do recognize and understand that it’s critically important that we maintain the balance within the portfolio and that we continue to have funding to support the other missions throughout the solar system.”
“We’ll rely on that decadal survey very heavily to determine what those priorities are and to help us provide that programmatic balance across all the various types of flight missions,” she added.