program change for return of Martian samples

The priceless samples collected by Perseverance will ultimately not return to Earth on the scheduled date, as the mission has been significantly altered.

It’s one thing to send robots to study other planets, but the most interesting thing is to be able to do it directly, which involves bringing the collected samples back to Earth. NASA and ESA plan to do so in the second half of the decade to recover Martian material, but the operation will not go as planned; the two agencies have just announced significant changes to this mission of colossal scientific importance.

They were expressed during Aerospace Week organized by the American Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. They began by announcing that the cost of the Europa Clipper mission, which is to visit Jupiter’s eponymous moon, would cost more than expected; its total price is now estimated at $5 billion, down from $4.25 billion previously.

A scientific treasure to recover at all costs

But the most interesting information of the event was certainly the announcement of the significant changes that await the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. As its name suggests, this mission aims to repatriate the samples collected on Mars by Perseverance.

NASA’s new darling, which recently celebrated its first birthday on site, is certainly capable of carrying out some preliminary analyzes directly on site, thanks to its small on-board laboratory. But the machine will be unable to bring them back itself; for the moment, he is content to leave his samples on the surface of the planet, well protected in airtight tubes.

Perseverance will therefore need a little help. This boost is the Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) which will provide it. It is an independent rover, which was originally to be deposited at the same time as its return shuttle, called the Mars Ascent Vehicle. His one and only mission: to clean up behind Perseverance. He will take care of recovering all the samples in order to bring them back to Earth.

Once its collection is complete, it is supposed to begin the return trip aboard the same Mars Ascent Vehicle that will have deposited it there. The latter will catapult the rover into Mars orbit. He will then be transferred to another vehicle, the Earth Retrurn Orbiter; he will finally make his way to the Blue Planet, his arms laden with reddish dust.

This scientific windfall will then be carefully packaged by NASA teams. She will be entitled to the same treatment as famous “moonrock” brought back from the Moon by the crews of the Apollo missions. They can then be studied in detail in an attempt to unlock the secrets of the red planet.

eyes bigger than the moon

On paper, this deadline is set for 2026. The problem is that NASA recently realized that its current program was too ambitious. In any case, this is the opinion of the independent commission consulted by Thomas Zurbruchen, the head of all scientific research at NASA.

According to the commission, the date of 2026 would simply be “unachievable“, because “the price and schedule of the program are not compatible” as is. They also pointed out some important technical considerations; for them, the approach of sending the rover and the MRV at the same time, in the same vehicle, is both too risky and irrelevant.

Warnings of which Zurbruchen took good note; although this deadline had been brought forward last year, it has just unveiled an adjusted program, and this time divided into two separate launches. The first will only be used to send the Mars Sample Rover; secondly, the Mars Ascent Vehicle will be deployed on the occasion of a second launch. A more expensive approach, but also safer and more affordable in terms of engineering.

Obviously, this means rethinking some fundamental aspects of the program. The deadline will therefore be delayed by at least two years; instead of leaving in 2026, the mission won’t launch until 2028. By extension, this also means that researchers won’t be able to get their hands on these samples until 2033 at the earliest.

Fortunately, the program is still in its preparatory phase of design and development. The two agencies will therefore not have had to sacrifice years of work before realizing this weak point. But in any case, it will still be necessary to wait a while before being able to recover these expected samples like the messiah.

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