It is one of the most complex space missions ever contemplated. A flotilla of unmanned probes and robot rovers will be flown to Mars to gather rock samples which will then be blasted back to Earth for study for signs of life.
This is Nasa’s Mars Sample Return and it would involve the first-ever space launch from another planet, as well as the first-ever rendezvous in orbit around another planet.
But this massively ambitious mission is in trouble. Its costs have spiralled dramatically and an independent review panel – set up by the space agency – has just warned that the mission’s original $4.4bn price tag is likely to soar to $8-11bn. A swath of other Nasa missions could be cancelled as a result.
“The Mars Sample Return was established with unrealistic budget expectations,” says the panel’s report. “There is currently no credible, congruent technical, nor properly margined schedule, cost and technical baselines that can be accomplished with the likely available funding.” In fact, there is “near zero probability” of Nasa’s plan succeeding on its current budget, the board concluded.
To the fury of a number of space scientists, the mission’s spiralling costs are already playing a part in the postponement of other Nasa-funded projects. These include Veritas, a mission to study Venus to discover why this searingly hot planet lost its potential to be a habitable world.
Another victim has been the Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission for studying the upper atmosphere. “You are cutting the artery, the lifeblood of our science,” plasma physicist Allison Jaynes of Iowa University told the journal Science. “All of Nasa science is taking a hit because of the Mars Sample Return burden.”
The mission will rely on the robot rover Perseverance, which is currently trundling across the red planet collecting samples of Martian rock. These are placed in titanium tubes, each the size of a hot dog, and stored. In a few years, the agency envisages putting…