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NASA seeks innovative designs to transport Mars samples to Earth


NASA's Perseverance Mars rover. /Reuters
NASA's Perseverance Mars rover. /Reuters

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover. /Reuters

NASA is seeking innovative designs to transport valuable samples from Mars to Earth, the U.S. space agency said on Monday.

Bringing Mars samples to Earth has been a 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. The mission's next phase, in partnership with the European Space Agency, envisions sending a second robotic landing craft to Mars to retrieve the samples and launching them into Martian orbit for rendezvous with a third spacecraft that would fly them back to Earth.

NASA said it soon will solicit architecture proposals from industry that could return samples and lower cost, risk and mission complexity.

Launch of the retrieval and orbital vehicles had been anticipated for 2027-28 with return of the samples targeted for the early 2030s and overall costs projected at $5 billion to $7 billion.

But the independent review found that actual Mars sample return costs, under the latest designs, would soar to as high as $11 billion and fail to deliver the specimens to Earth before 2040.

"The bottom line is an $11 billion budget is too expensive, and a 2040 return date is too far away," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.

Continuing on at such high funding levels also would eat into other major NASA science objectives, such as a planned rotorcraft exploration of Saturn's icy moon Titan, two upcoming missions to Venus, and near-Earth object surveyor, Nelson said.

"Safely landing and collecting the samples, launching a rocket with the samples off 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," Nelson said.

"We need to look outside the box to find a way ahead that is both affordable and returns samples in a reasonable timeframe," he added.

NASA officials left open the possibility of leaving behind some of the 30-plus samples that Perseverance is expected to collect. The bulk of the samples are being kept inside the rover itself, while a smaller backup cache was placed at a collection site on the planet's surface.

Nelson expressed hope that the brightest minds at NASA, Japan's JPL and their aerospace industry partners would find a solution.

"These are folks who can figure out rather difficult things," he said.

(With input from agencies)

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