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NASA struggling to find new plan to make Mars Sample Return work

Published Apr 16th, 2024 8:43PM EDT
A concept of the Mars sample retriever that could bring alien germs to Earth
Image: NASA

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One of NASA’s biggest space missions is in deep trouble. The Mars Sample Return mission is currently on track to be one of the biggest undertakings the space agency has ever attempted, but the issues continue to pile up. Late last year, NASA shared it was pausing the sample return mission due to ongoing budget issues. Now, the space agency is looking for a completely new plan, as the current option won’t have the samples arriving on Earth until well into the 2040s.

We already knew that the Mars Sample Return just wasn’t happening as quickly as NASA wanted it to. It is a huge undertaking to create a spacecraft that can travel to Mars, deploy a smaller spacecraft to pick up the samples, and then deliver them back to Earth. That hasn’t stopped NASA from trying to make it work, though.

Unfortunately, all those good intentions just aren’t giving NASA the results they want, and a recent report from the space agency suggests that we wouldn’t see the samples returning until the 2040s, years after the first manned missions to Mars are expected to happen. That, obviously, won’t help us learn more about the Red Planet so we can equip astronauts with what they need, so NASA needs to figure out a new plan for the Mars Sample Return mission.

Mars in colorImage source: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/G. Michael,

The current plan is slated to cost around $11 billion to bring the samples back to Earth, and NASA says it’s too expensive and will take too long. As such, officials have tasked the government and engineers in the private sector with coming up with a better plan.

This decision, of course, follows an independent report from last year that saw the budget and costs for the return mission skyrocketing and ballooning, leading to massive delays that threatened the very viability of the mission. But that isn’t the whole issue affecting the Mars Sample Return mission.

Part of the issue’s core is the fact that NASA has seen new spending restrictions put in place since the Federal Responsibility Act. With these new budget restraints, NASA officials determined that the current sample return plans just aren’t viable for getting the samples back to Earth in time.

Because of all of this, NASA is shaking things up quite a bit by trying to find a new plan to make the Mars Sample Return mission happen in a more timely manner, and for cheaper. Involving the private sector has helped a lot with creating cheaper missions in other parts of the space industry, so it’s very possible that it could pay off here, too. NASA also has to make sure it’s not eating away the budget of its other missions, like the upcoming Europa Clipper mission and more.

It is unclear exactly what kind of solution NASA will find for the Mars Sample Return mission. What we do know, though, is that the space agency is grasping for straws to make this work in a more timely manner. Now, all we can do is wait and see if NASA is able to pull it off.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.