Outside Experts Want NASA to Delay Schedule, Increase Cost Estimate for Mars Sample Return
A panel of experts established by NASA to assess its plans to return samples of Mars to Earth is recommending that NASA delay the launch of the next two spacecraft and build the budget around a higher cost estimate. The panel strongly supports the three-spacecraft mission, a joint effort between NASA and the European Space Agency, but concluded the current plan is too ambitious.
Returning samples of Mars to Earth for study by scientists in laboratories equipped with state-of-the-art equipment is a long-sought dream of planetary scientists. The robotic spacecraft that have landed on and explored the Red Planet since the 1970s carry sophisticated equipment, but are constrained by how much mass can be launched by rockets, how much power can be generated by their solar panels or nuclear power supplies, signal time delay and a host of other limitations. Steve Squyres, the “father” of the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, has said that what those rovers could do in a day could be accomplished by a human in less than a minute.
No Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission has been mounted yet because it is so expensive, however. Just sending a probe to Mars can cost more than $2 billion. For this, there has to be a way to get the samples back, too.
The current MSR concept requires three spacecraft. First is NASA’s $2.4 billion Mars Perseverance (or Mars 2020) probe already on its way to Mars. It will collect samples in 43 cigar-shaped sample tubes and leave them on the surface. Next, a NASA Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) equipped with an ESA-provided “fetch” rover will pick up the samples and launch them into orbit around Mars. There they will be handed off to ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) equipped with a NASA-provided sample return capsule for the trip back to Earth.
NASA and ESA plan to launch SRL and ERO in 2026. ESA’s governing body has already approved the first third of the 1.5 billion Euros its contribution is estimated to cost. Earlier this year NASA estimated its share at $2.5-3.0 billion, stressing it was a “first guess.”
Shortly after Perseverance’s launch this summer, NASA Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen established an Independent Review Board (IRB) to take a look at the plan and get a better understanding of the technical complexity, cost and schedule.
Chaired by David Thompson, the retired President of Orbital ATK (which was acquired by Northrop Grumman), the IRB’s report was released yesterday.
The IRB “unanimously agrees the time is ripe” for MSR, but made many recommendations. They identified six as the most important.
Two key recommendations are that the two spacecraft be launched in 2028 rather than 2026, while holding open the option of launching ERO in 2027, and that NASA plan for its share of the cost being $3.8-4.4 billion.
Although Zurbuchen said in August the estimate was $2.5-3.0 billion, the IRB used a NASA figure of $2.9-3.3 billion, so its conclusion is that the cost will be about $1 billion higher. It recommended NASA quickly adjust its budget planning and add $500 million to MSR for FY2022-2023.
The Board cautioned “we do not believe the program’s schedule and cost are aligned with its scope,” one of the reasons it concluded the 2026 launch dates are “not achievable.” It also noted a “mismatch” in the development schedules for ESA’s ERO and the NASA sample return capsule, or Capture/Containment and Return System (CCRS), it will carry, warning that it is “not well enough understood, and could undermine the success of the program.”
In the report, Zurbuchen responded to each of the recommendations. Regarding cost and schedule, he only partially concurred with the IRB. He said NASA will continue to examine launch opportunities in 2026, 2027 and 2028 and “plan to a cost range that bounds program risk.”
The MSR program currently is in concept formulation, what NASA calls pre-Phase A. Phase A is preliminary analysis, Phase B is definition, Phase C/D is design and development, and Phase E is operations. NASA science programs are reviewed at “Key Decision Points” before entering each successive phase. NASA commits to schedule and cost at KDP-C prior to entering Phase C/D, so there is a long way to go.
Once the samples are back on Earth they will have to be stored and studied in a biologically secure sample-receiving facility. The cost and schedule for that are not included in these estimates.