May 20, 2024

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NASA MSR Program: Bringing samples from Mars in 2040 is not an option

NASA MSR Program: Bringing samples from Mars in 2040 is not an option

For several months, NASA's main planetary mission has been in jeopardy. Talking about the MSR program (Mars sample return), which was scheduled to be brought to Earth at the beginning of the next decade with up to thirty samples of Martian tubes collected by the Perseverance rover. NASA crippled mission development in response to the escalating costs of the program, which, instead of the planned $5 billion, was on track to cost between $8 and $11 billion. In September 2023, a second panel of independent experts dedicated to analyzing the project, MSR IRB-2, was formed (The second Mars sample returns to the independent review board), published its findings, concluding that the mission could not be carried out within the planned budgets and deadlines.

End of MSR? (a pot).

In the wake of this report, which caused the virtual shutdown of the MSR, NASA created another response committee to provide alternatives to this quagmire, called MIRT (MSR IRB Response Team). On April 15, 2024, MIRT published its conclusions, which did not please anyone. because? Well, because after determining that Perseverance samples could not be fetched for less than $8 or $11 billion, the committee concluded that it would be better to divide the tasks that make up the MSR program to reduce the annual cost and give it enough time to mature. New technologies. As a result, the samples will not reach Earth until 2040.

MSR Elements (NASA).

According to MIRT, the European probe ERO (Earth return orbitresponsible for bringing samples from Mars, will launch in 2030, while NASA's SRL probe (Sample retrieval lander) will do so in 2035. The SRL probe carries a MAV rocket (Mars Ascent Vehicle) which will place Perseverance samples into Mars orbit, where they will be collected by ERO for return to Earth in 2040. The committee believes that with additional time elements of the SRL can be improved, such as adding radioisotope generators (RTGs) to simplify its operation. Mass and design, at the expense of a higher final price. For NASA headquarters this option is unacceptable and they have chosen to keep the MSR in a state of social uncertainty. Right now, the project is both alive and dead at the same time. I survive because it is maintained on a minimal budget, not enough to build the vehicles, but enough to keep the most important employees associated with them working. He died because without more money the mission would never be launched.

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MIRT Committee Proposal for MSR Implementation (NASA).
Original MSR architecture, with SRL launching in 2028 and ERO in 2027. The probes will reach Earth in 2033 (NASA).

After those MIRT recommendations were rejected, NASA launched requests for proposals on April 16 for new mission designs that could return samples faster and at a lower cost. While we wait for these proposals to arrive, the mission of MSR as we knew it is over. MIRT itself proposes some solutions so that the Mars pieces can arrive faster, such as simplifying or reducing the size of the MAV rocket and the operating system sample container. As its design evolved, the MAV became heavier, forcing the European SFR to surrender (Sample fetch rover) to lighten the SRL probe. Also, the OS container, which is designed with very strict standards to avoid any kind of biological contamination, and its capture system, has increased its cost significantly. So the simplest thing is to reduce the size of the MAV and the OS container, but this can only be done by reducing the number of Perseverance samples.

Perseverance Tour of Jezero Crater (NASA).

That's why NASA is open to mission proposals that include at least ten sample tubes instead of the planned thirty. The bad thing is that this decision will have a significant impact on the scientific potential of the mission, and it is not clear that its price will decrease significantly. However, NASA plans to close the proposal deadline on May 17, and next October it will announce several contracts worth up to $1.5 million to mature promising mission structures. Since NASA hasn't completely abandoned the program's original architecture either — that would leave ESA in the lurch (although they're used to it and it wouldn't be the first time) — NASA's solution seems more like an attempt at forward flight. That is, freezing the MSR while waiting for funding to improve or the political climate to change enough to make canceling the program acceptable.

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Latest SRL probe design (NASA).
Current design of the MAV rocket (NASA).

The latter is very complicated because let's not forget that bringing samples from Mars is the second space race currently facing China and the United States (the first is between NASA's Artemis program and China's manned lunar program to see who will put humans first). The moon in the twenty-first century). In 2030 – also two years later than initially planned – China will launch two probes that make up the Tianwen 3 mission using two CZ-5 rockets. One of the two probes, the equivalent of the SRL, will land on Mars and will be equipped with a Mars Ascent Vehicle. The other will bring the samples to Earth. The Tianwen 3 mission is simpler than the MSR mission, and therefore no one doubts that China can become the first country to return samples from another planet, before the United States. But while it's not impressive from a scientific standpoint – the MSR will bring back samples carefully selected by Perseverance's instruments – we shouldn't underestimate its value to science.

China's Tianwen 3 (CNSA) Mars sample return mission.
The Tianwen 3 lander will carry out a deep-sea sampling (CNSA) exercise.

First, because any Martian sample can provide a lot of interesting data, such as direct dating of rocks, precise isotopic composition, and so on. Second, because the Tianwen 3 lander will include a robot or helicopter to fetch rocks from the surface, it will have some ability to pick samples. Third, because in addition to the robot arm for regolith and surface rocks, it will also carry a driller capable of collecting samples more than one meter deep. Let's not forget that Perseverance is only able to collect surface samples, but many researchers are keen to analyze deeper subsurface layers, where organic materials are more protected from the effects of solar wind radiation and cosmic rays. Whatever the case, China, which started with a clear loss in this race, has now outperformed its competitor. However, NASA can persuade a possible cancellation of the MSR if necessary, considering that the next goal around 2040 is to put a human on Mars. The problem with this logic is twofold. On the one hand, a manned journey to Mars is still a long way off, and on the other hand, nothing prevents China from also joining this other race.

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References:

  • https://science.nasa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/mirt-04152024-updated-signed.pdf