NASA has announced a proposal to launch a robotic mission to Mars to collect an array of samples that would then be returned to Earth. The agency plans to launch the multibillion-dollar sample return mission as soon as 2026 and will likely postpone several other missions to do so.
Although rovers like Curiosity are able to perform various on-site rock analyses, instruments like scanning electron microscopes and synchrotrons are far too large to integrate into their systems. As a result, if scientists are to prove the current or past existence of life on Mars, they will need to have access to samples from Mars here on Earth. A Mars sample return mission, as a result, has quickly become the highest priority on NASA’s mission agenda.
With the Mars sample mission a priority, NASA has given an ambitious deadline of 2026 to launch. The associate administrator of the agency’s science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen expressed NASA’s reasoning behind the ambitious deadline stating that it goes “straight for what I would consider the jugular issue, which is how to land and take off [sic] the planet.”
Although the main sample return mission would only be launched in 2026, NASA plans to launch a rover by 2020. The rover would act as an advanced team by collecting samples and packaging them in sealed containers. The 2026 mission would then dispatch a lander housing the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) that would be used to retrieve the samples and launch from the red planet’s surface. The loading of the samples could be done by the original rover or an additional rover accompanying the MAV. Once the MAV reaches orbit, it would rendezvous with an interplanetary vehicle that would transport the samples back to Earth.
The entire mission is likely to cost several billion dollars and will severely strain NASA’s planetary science budget. The agency is, as a result, exploring the option of receiving additional funding or assistance with the project from other countries or from private sector contemporaries like SpaceX.
As a result of the significant financial impact of the Mars sample mission, it is likely that NASA will push back the launch of a new orbiter. The tentatively named Next Mars Orbiter (NEMO) was previously meant to launch in 2022. Jim Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division explained that “2022 is probably off the table”.
One of the main objectives of the NEMO orbiter is to relay radio signals between Earth and the fleet of rovers on the Martian surface. As a result, with the NEMO launch likely to be delayed as much as two years, NASA could soon face difficulties with rover communications thanks to an aging fleet of communication orbiters. Additionally, the orbiter will feature an advanced sharp-eyed telescope that will be invaluable for locating and scouting potential landing areas for the Mars sample mission.
Currently, much of the work that would be done by NEMO is being performed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Mars Odyssey. Although the MRO is a relatively new addition having reached orbit in 2006, Odyssey is currently in its sixteenth year of operation and is unlikely to be operational for the launch of the Mars sample mission. As a result, without NEMO, the MRO will be required to shoulder the full load of communications relaying. In addition, should the Mars sampling mission be delayed for any reason, the MRO would likely not be operational by the time it eventually launched. If that were to happen, NASA would have to drastically rethink the infrastructure of the proposed mission.