Sticking to a virgin piece of Mars in a laboratory on Earth is among the most ambitious dreams of planetary scientists, and NASA and its European counterpart want to make the dream a reality.
It’s worth it, but it won’t be easy, eh an independent group of experts , who have spent two months reviewing existing plans, says a new report to NASA. This report offers 44 findings and 44 recommendations designed to identify and mitigate weaknesses in the mission’s current plans and bureaucratic systems, while warning that the mission may still miss its current expenditures and planned objectives. You can read the report here (PDF).
“We unanimously believe that Mars sample return program must continue; we think its scientific value will be extremely high, with the potential for world change for Earth̵
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Although the board found that later mission-critical spacecraft may be able to launch in 2026, such as NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) We currently hope that the next launch window, which is in 2028, may be more likely. NASA plans to continue targeting an earlier launch date and slow down the line if necessary, the agency’s management stressed.
“In general, the way we interpret the collective set of recommendations is in full swing,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, told a news conference. “The last thing we want to do is turn the switch right now, without really exploring this and considering all the options.”
The board also suggested that, given the potential delay and other factors, a safer bet would be a budget of between $ 3.8 billion and $ 4.4 billion, perhaps 30% more than NASA said. currently used.
An ambitious project
NASA set up an independent review board in August to assess early plans for a larger set of samples to return samples from Mars and to identify potential problems as early as possible.
As provided, Mars sample return program is a huge undertaking shared by two major space agencies that will require several separate spacecraft operating for more than a decade, not to mention the first rocket launch from the surface of the Red Planet and numerous measures to prevent sample contamination.
The report focuses on the future space aspects of the mission – how Persistence and its staff will interact with future missions, what these spacecraft will look like, and the complex process of safely retrieving this precious cargo from the surface of Mars and in laboratories on Earth. (The mission will also require a new sampling facility that the board has not evaluated.)
Exploring Mars is never easy. The Red Planet is known for its sophisticated launch calendar, with favorable capabilities at a distance of 26 months, slow communication and dangerous landing conditions.
“Every mission to Mars has things to worry about,” said Jeffrey Gramling, NASA’s Mars Sample Return program director, at a news conference.
NASA and ESA also hope to launch the mission while Mars Mars Perseverance, which is currently en route to the Red Planet, is still operational. The rover will land on Mars on February 18 and will operate on the surface of the Red Planet for at least one Martian year (687 Earth days), although many NASA robot researchers have remained active far longer than the duration of their main mission.
And it’s not like NASA has a ton of free time: the two key spacecraft manufacturing centers have their hands full with other ambitious projects like James Webb and Roman space telescopes and Europa Clipper mission. Therefore, the Review Board recommends a number of measures to ensure that NASA carefully shares the work between its centers and can build on previous experience.
“The only reason we did it was to expand our chances of success by opening our eyes wide,” Zurbuchen said of the independent review process. “I really want to challenge ourselves for missions, but we want to do it every time, keeping our eyes open and learning from every opportunity we have.”
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Devil in the details
Many of the report’s recommendations are deeply bureaucratic, such as considering how work is shared between different NASA centers, all of which are working on many other projects, and arranging ways to accommodate NASA and ESA staff on each other’s premises. .
The board also recommended changes to the management of the Mars 2020 mission. One would include surveillance of the rover in a broader program to return samples from Mars now, instead of waiting for future missions to begin; another would see sample return activities prioritizing over other possible Perseverance work.
Another question that arose in the report was whether NASA and ESA had fully explored all their capabilities for the most successful design of specific parts of the mission. The sampling rover, for example, is based on the European / Russian one ExoMars rover should hit the market in 2022, but can benefit from further improvements in mobility for example. Currently, all planned ground missions are designed to be powered by solar energy, but the addition of nuclear energy may make the mission less vulnerable.
And the report notes that in addition to the stunning complexity of efforts to return samples from Mars, it’s not open to much of what NASA’s jargon calls “descoping” – essentially corners that can be cut along the way. if the mission is facing budget or schedule deficits.
One of the few measures the agencies could use if the venture turns out to be congested would be to delay the launch of one or more of the later spacecraft that NASA and ESA specifically target for 2026.
The next opportunity to launch to Mars comes in 2028, but later things get complicated. If surface missions slip away in the 2030s, key components of the project will need to be repaired, independent review board member Peter Teisinger of NASA’s California Jet Propulsion Laboratory told a news conference. “The conditions when you arrive on Mars they change drastically during the Martian year, “Theisinger said. Opportunities to start after 2028 do not arrive in a very attractive season. “
But despite all the complications, bringing Martian rocks to Earth is it’s worth it, the board is confident. “Science would be very exciting,” Maria Zuber, a member of the review board and planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told a news conference.
“We did a lot of in situ analyzes with Martian rocks on the surface of Mars, and obviously they were very valuable,” she said. “But what can you do with a stone that brings it back and works in an earth laboratory … [the samples] will create a chronology essentially of the history of what happened in this crater. “
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