NASA is setting up an independent review board to oversee the Mars Sample Return mission plans, in an effort to make sure the mission will be completed on time and—crucially—under budget.
The mission—set to be completed in 2033—entails picking up Martian rock samples collected by the Perseverance rover and bringing them to Earth. Should the mission be pulled off, they will be the first samples ever brought to Earth from another world, and in the process, will see the first-ever launch from the surface of another planet.
This is the second review board set up for the sample return program, one of the most ambitious in recent NASA history. The Mars Sample Return is a partnership between NASA and the European Space Agency.
The mission will require a suite of robotics to shuttle the Martian material to Earth. Perseverance has collected and cached the samples already, after two years on the planet. Next, a lander needs to land near Perseverance, along with a small rocket that will carry the samples into Mars orbit.
The agency also intends to send two more helicopters to Mars to aid in sample recovery, now that the Ingenuity helicopter has proven the capability for flight on Mars. Once the samples have been launched into Mars orbit, another spacecraft will recover them and head back to Earth.
Orlando Figueroa, the former deputy center director for science and technology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, will head up the review board. The board is expected to release a report of its findings—including the likelihood of mission success and scientific and technical aspects of the program—in late August.
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Perseverance landed on Mars in February 2021 and since then has been collecting rock samples on the western rim of Jezero Crater, which once was a river delta flowing into a lake. NASA scientists believe that if microbial life once existed on Mars, it will have been in a place like Jezero. Perseverance completed its sample depot earlier this year, setting the stage for the ambitious sample return mission.
NASA’s struggled with staffing and budgeting issues recently, to the point that the VERITAS mission to Venus has been delayed indefinitely. The review board will hopefully ensure the Mars Sample Return doesn’t meet a similar fate, or have such bloated costs that it impinges on other ongoing NASA projects.
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