Artist’s conception of Mars 2020 rover after dropping soil samples containing Martian soil samples on the surface.
Artist’s conception of Mars 2020 rover after dropping soil samples containing Martian soil samples on the surface.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is officially asking Congress to fund a Mars sample-return project, in what would be one of the most complex missions ever attempted by the space agency.

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NASA’s much-anticipated budget request for fiscal year 2021 came out Monday, and it showcases all the space- and aeronautics-related things the space agency would like to accomplish over the next few years—and the amount of money it’ll need to make it all happen.

NASA wants to spend $25.25 billion in 2021, which is 12 percent more than it got in 2020. Among the many items listed, the budget request provisions for the upcoming Artemis mission (which could see American astronauts land on the Moon by 2024), new Earth-observation missions, ongoing low Earth orbit spaceflight operations (including missions aboard the International Space Station), a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, and a Mars sample-return mission.

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In terms of specific numbers, the space agency is asking Congress for $3 billion to develop a human lunar landing system for Artemis, which, if approved, would be the “first time we have had direct funding for a human lander since the Apollo Program,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in his preface to the budget request. In addition, NASA wants $8.76 billion to design and build deep space exploration systems, $2.71 billion to develop planetary science projects, and $1.97 billion to fund Earth science missions, among other things.

The Martian Ascent Vehicle blasting off with its cargo.
The Martian Ascent Vehicle blasting off with its cargo.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The cost of space transportation in 2021 was pegged at $1.88 billion, with the NASA chief saying the ability to launch American astronauts from U.S. soil is “a capability we must never lose again.” As for the proposed Europa Clipper mission, NASA is asking for $403.5 million to kickstart development, which in this humble reporter’s opinion would be worth every penny; Europa is one of the more fascinating objects in the solar system, with its icy crust that hides a potentially habitable ocean.

Excitingly, NASA wants $233 million to fund Mars Future Missions—a hefty portion of which would be allocated “for studies and technology development... towards a Mars sample return mission,” according to the budget request. This marks an important next step in the program, in which the space agency is partnering with the European Space Agency.

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NASA has already provisioned for this future sample-return mission through its design of the Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled for launch in July. Once this still-to-be-named machine gets rolling on the Martian surface, it will use its drill to reach down below the surface and extract sample materials. Contents dredged by the drill will be placed inside 30 pen-sized canisters, which the rover will eventually leave on the surface. NASA had hoped these samples would be fetched and returned to Earth during a future mission, and it now appears this could actually happen.

The Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission will involve three distinct phases, if you include the Mars 2020 contribution. The second phase would see another lander sent to Mars, which would deploy a rover designed to intercept the left-behind caches. A sample transfer arm would then place each canister inside a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which would blast off into space with its precious cargo. The third stage would involve a support satellite waiting in Mars orbit, which would intercept the rocket and send the samples on a trajectory toward Earth.

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The MSR mission will also require the construction of a secure sample-retrieving facility, to ensure the integrity of the samples and to make sure nothing leaks out and contaminates our environment here on Earth (we don’t know, for example, what dangerous substances may lurk in Martian soil—a concern shared by planners of the Apollo Program).

It’s a tremendously complex mission with lots of moving parts. MSR would involve a number of technical firsts, including the first sample return from another planet, the first rocket launch from another planet, and the first round-trip mission from another planet.

“It is complicated, but fortunately we’re not doing it alone. We have a great partnership with the European Space Agency and they’re providing some major pieces of this mission,” said Austin Nicholas, MSR lead mission engineer from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a NASA video. “Within NASA we’ve actually got a number of centers working on all of the different pieces.”

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Specifically, the MSR team is partnering with the Marshall Space Flight Center on the Mars Ascent Vehicle), Langley and Ames research centers for the Earth entry vehicle), Glenn Research Center for the sample fetch rover wheels, and Goddard Space Flight Center for the orbiter payload. It’s “a whole NASA effort to get the Mars Sample Return done,” said Nicholas, who expects launches of the second and third stage components in 2026 and a sample return by 2031.

Once on Earth, these samples would be studied with state-of-the art instruments. Mars 2020 is slated to land inside Jezero crater, which once hosted a large lake. Samples from this spot would provide scientists with a richer understanding of the chemicals and compounds found within the Martian soil, and possibly even biosignatures indicative of ancient life.

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NASA’s new budget request for 2021 still needs to be approved by Congress, and many of the items and figures listed in the 817-page document could be adjusted.

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At the same time, NASA’s current Moon-to-Mars strategy stands in contrast to a recently proposed House bill that would see American astronauts on the Moon in 2028 and on Mars by 2033. The proposal would also change NASA’s ability to procure partners from the private sector, which could have a material bearing on the recently proposed budget. Plenty of i’s to dot and t’s to cross, but it appears we’ll have lots exciting space exploration news to cover over the next decade.

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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