NASA has released an independent review report, indicating the agency is now ready to undertake its Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign to bring pristine samples of rock and regolith from Mars to Earth for scientific study.
The agency established the MSR Independent Review Board (IRB) to evaluate its early concepts for a groundbreaking, international partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) to return the first samples from another planet.
The IRB comprised 10 experienced leaders from scientific and engineering fields. It met during 25 sessions from August to October of this year, interviewed experts across NASA and ESA, as well as in industry and academia, and made 44 recommendations to address potential areas of concern regarding the programme’s scope and management, technical approach, schedule, and funding profile.
The IRB’s report has concluded that NASA is prepared for the campaign which builds on decades of scientific advancements and technical progress in Mars exploration. It also highlighted the “excellent” progress that the agency has made in recent years, further emphasising the potential for the programme to enabled civilisation-scale scientific discoveries underscoring the technology that is available now.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science said: “NASA is committed to mission success and taking on great challenges for the benefit of humanity, and one way we do that is by ensuring we are set up to succeed as early as possible.
“I thank the members of this board for their many hours of work resulting in a very thorough review. We look forward to continued planning and mission formulation in close partnership with ESA. Ultimately, I believe this sample return will be well worth the effort and help us answer key astrobiology questions about the Red Planet – bringing us one step closer to our eventual goal of sending humans to Mars.”
In order to carry out the MSR campaign, three advanced space vehicles will be required. The first of these is NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, which launched in July and has currently travelled over 168,900,000 miles. The Perseverance is over halfway through its journey and is due to land on Mars’ Jezero Crater in February 2021.
Aboard Perseverance is a sophisticated sampling system with a coring drill and sample tubes that are the cleanest hardware ever sent to space. Once on Mars, Perseverance aims to cache rock and regolith samples in its collection tubes.
Following this, the ESA is to provide a ‘fetch’ rover to collect the remaining samples, which will then be delivered to a NASA provided Ascent Vehicle. The Ascent Vehicle is to then launch the samples into orbit around Mars, where they will be taken in a highly secure containment capsule by an ESA provided Earth Return Orbiter. These samples will then return to Earth in the 2030s.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “Mars Sample Return is something NASA needs to do as a leading member of the global community.
“We know there are challenges ahead, but that’s why we look closely at these architectures. And that’s why in the end, we achieve the big accomplishments.”
NASA initiated the IRB in mid-August, which is the earliest independent review of any NASA Science Mission Directorate large strategic mission. In the past, such reviews have not occurred until much later in the programme development but this review has been conducted earlier to ensure the long-awaited mission is set for success.
David Thompson, retired president and CEO of Orbital ATK, and chair of the IRB, said: “The MSR campaign is a highly ambitious, technically demanding, and multi-faceted planetary exploration programme with extraordinary scientific potential for world-changing discoveries.
“After a thorough review of the agency’s planning over the past several years, the IRB unanimously believes that NASA is now ready to carry out the MSR programme, the next step for robotic exploration of Mars.”
NASA has agreed to address and study all of the board’s recommendations in the next year, as it moves through the early formulation efforts, in order to better position the programme for success.