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Mars Mission in trouble

Luck had it that as soon as I had decided to write an article for my October post on the importance of sample return missions on the back of the success of the OSIRIS-Rex mission, and got about publishing it on the first of that month, a report on the planned Mars Sample Return mission (MSR) had just been released a few weeks earlier, sending shockwaves throughout the Mars exploration community. MSR is in trouble. And I want to write about it.

Ever since the Vikings touched the red planet’s surface in the late 1970s, planetary scientists have been hopeful that we would be able to return back to Earth with a pristine surface sample for in-depth analysis. In fact, MSR has been a top priority of the last two National Academies Decadal Survey of Planetary Science, a consensus report that advises the U.S. Congress and the White House.

As such, MSR represents the critical next step in a strategic program of Mars Exploration spanning the past four decades and has for primary goal to unlock the planet’s geological and, potentially biological past, thus advancing our understanding of the potential for life beyond Earth. Did Mars harbour life in the past and if so, when? MSR might tell us.

The problem is that to achieve these ambitious objectives, the mission requires a series of meticulously planned stages, including the launch and coordination of multiple robotic assets made by different space agencies (NASA and ESA), which need to take place within specific timeframes as imposed by orbital mechanics. In addition to the Perseverance rover already cashing samples in Jezero crater, the other robotic assets that would need to be sent to Mars are the Sample Retrieval Lander, the Mars Ascent Vehicle, and the Capture Containment and Return System which includes the Earth Return Orbiter. A planetary mission with such a level of complexity has never been executed before.

This is where the report comes in. Produced by the Independent Review Board (of which the planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine was part – Jonathan helped me with my first book), the report has concluded that currently, MSR is based on ‘unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the beginning’. Furthermore, there are ‘deficiencies in the organizational and programmatic oversight structure, complexities’ and MSR is ‘beyond the experience base of the Science Mission Directorate and the participants.’ Ouch!

As it stands, the mission has a high probability of ending in failure if the entire management and organizational structure for MSR is not revisited and the budget is not raised to a level within the $8 to $11B, placing it on par with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This last part is highly concerning. During the JWST design phase, the space telescope was threatened to be cancelled multiple times by the U.S. Congress due to the ballooning costs and was only saved because of the continued lobbying by all the sectors in astronomy that would benefit from the telescope: planetary science, cosmology, astrophysics, astronomy, astrobiology, etc.

Relatively speaking, MSR has a narrow focus and therefore doesn’t enjoy such a broad support base. In fact, because none of the MSR vehicles would be equipped with instruments other than the ones required for the mission, even some within the Mars community are not so keen to see such a high-risk mission potentially cannibalizing the Mars exploration budget for the coming two decades. The ageing Mars telecommunications infrastructure needs replacing (Odyssey 2001, MRO 2005, MVN 2013, and TGO 2016), and Mars science would benefit from new surface missions. So, who will be there to save MSR if the U.S. Congress starts having second thoughts?

To make matters worse, as the Perseverance mission carries on its exploration of the delta in the Jezero crater, there are still uncertainties as to what samples will be returned and how these could be recovered. The rover has already deposited 10 samples at a location called Three Forks. These represent only the geology of the crater floor and front of the delta. Other samples taken since then are already onboard the rover and additional samples will yield increasing science value as Perseverance continues its trek along the delta top, across the crater margin, and then out of Jezero onto the crater rim. Mars scientists suspect that the crater margin and rim contain material of exceptional diversity. But what if the rover breaks down while it climbs the rim? How will a robotic vehicle recover these samples? And what if it manages to finally reach the top of the rim, where will the recovery vehicle land and how will it reach the rover? None of these scenarios are easy to envisage from an engineering point of view and represent high-risk stakes.

Given the problems highlighted above - more are identified in the report- it’s not looking good for the MSR mission. And yet, there is still hope. China has announced that it aims to bring back samples from Mars in the 2030s as well. (How it will attempt to do so is currently unknown.) This level of healthy competition might provide the right kick that the U.S. needs to focus harder on MSR and give the mission all the attention and money it deserves.

For my Christmas list for Santa this year, I’ve put down that I’d like to see the Jezero samples back on Earth before the end of the 2030s. Let’s see if Santa can deliver. In the meantime, I wish you all a very early Merry Christmas everyone and happy holidays.

As always, onwards and upwards

Bernard Image: Perseverance Rover on its way to Mars.

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