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NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission could get a massive delay

Published Jun 23rd, 2023 8:31PM EDT
A concept of the Mars sample retriever that could bring alien germs to Earth
Image: NASA

Some of the biggest upcoming space missions are going to be very exciting. In fact, one such mission is set to bring samples back from the Martian surface, giving human astronauts their first chance to study Martian rocks up close. While that mission was previously expected to arrive at Mars in the early 2030s, new reports suggest the Mars Sample Return mission could see some massive delays going forward.

At least, that’s what things look like based on the current way that everything is going at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which is responsible for building the lander. JPL has never built a lander of this size, and while the sample return mission is a huge priority over the next decade, there are other space missions that JPL is helping lead the way on.

For one, as Ars Technica reports, the JPL workforce is already spread pretty thin working on the Europa Clipper, which is set to continue on well through most of 2024. As such, there doesn’t appear to be as much workforce to push toward the Mars Sample Return mission, which could help lead to delays, as NASA still needs to build its massive lander.

Additionally, there is the overall budget for the project that has to be taken into account. One thing that everyone is trying to avoid is letting it become the planetary community’s James Webb Space Telescope. For nearly a decade, the Webb telescope took up most of the agency’s budget, which made it difficult to work on other missions at the same time.

This needs to be avoided, which is why we could see NASA pushing a delay for the Mars Sample Return mission. Of course, this mission was never slated to launch until the late 2020s, possibly early 2030s anyway, so any delay at this point would simply be adding more years to the ticker. Overall, though, things don’t appear to be going well based on comments made to Ars in its latest report.

The implications of what this could mean, if it is allowed to undermine the rest of the planetary portfolio, is very heavily outlined in NASA’s “decadal” survey, which details the top priority missions that NASA and other space agencies want to work on in the next ten years. Hopefully, that isn’t the case, and as Ars points out in their report, NASA and policymakers will have some options to take advantage of if they so choose.

Of course, one of the biggest options here is to turn the construction of the lander into a competition of sorts, as that will help cut the total cost down in the long run if companies are bidding for the job. NASA is already working with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as others, on different scientific missions, including future Artemis missions, so it makes sense.

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.