NASA’s Mars Sample Return Mission Still Behind Schedule

8th Mar 2024
NASA’s Mars Sample Return Mission Still Behind Schedule

NASA and The European Space Agency (ESA) are still battling the complexities of their Mars Sample Return Mission (MSRM). In what was supposed to be a simple, first-of-its-kind mission, NASA and ESA were preparing to welcome Martian samples collected by the Perseverance Rover

However, the task has proven to be more arduous and convoluted that first thought. As such, the mission has been delayed until at least 2027, and greatly exceeded its original budget. To exacerbate the situation, the technology needed to retrieve the samples is currently under-developed. 

In an interview with the Planetary Society, chair of the independent review into MSRM, Orlando Figueroa, commented: “you keep adding to a set of unrealistic expectations from the beginning, and then have a yearly budget that cannot support it. The conclusion we arrived at was that you have to step back and revisit this to add schedule and budget resiliency under clearer guidelines because, without that, you’re compromising a commitment to mission success.” 

What Went Wrong For MSRM?

An internal review recently published by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, outlined many key obstacles that are impeding MSRM’s success. Notably, the three standout thematic areas included cost, the complex nature, and the timeline for the mission. But most importantly, the technology needed to retrieve the samples has faced continuous delays. 

The Capture, Containment, and Return System (CCRS) will be used to “capture and sterilise the Orbiting Sample container”, NASA said. It will also isolate the sample in another container and then return them back to Earth. NASA originally said it would be ready for October 2022, but its preliminary design review (PDR) hit several delays. Finally, the PDR went through in late 2023. Nevertheless, MSRM’s technology still has a long way to go.  

According to the Planetary Society, the project was meant to cost upwards of $5.3 billion. However, it will now cost in the region of $8.4 to $10.9 billion. As a result, MSRM is now one of the most expensive missions of its kind. There’s also the issue of getting the samples to the orbiter. ESA are currently designing a 2.5m robotic arm that would be able to autonomously procure the samples from Perseverance by ascending to the Martian surface. Whilst it appears they are making progress, ESA have not released an estimated date of completion.

When Will MSRM Be Back On Track? 

Perseverance is currently at work, collecting samples and storing them in metal tubes. The rover has already accumulated many containers, but if the mission fails to get back on track, these samples will be useless. Although NASA remains hopeful, according to their report, MSRM’s Formulation Phase is currently several months behind schedule.

Under current proposals, the launch of ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter will take place in 2027. Thereafter, the lander will launch in 2028. Finally, the mission is poised to bring the samples back to Earth by 2033. However, the complexities of the mission have ultimately left little confidence in the revised dates. Time will tell if NASA and ESA will be able to get those essential samples back to Earth. 

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