NASA is looking for new ideas on how to deliver samples from Mars to Earth. The previous plan is too expensive

NASA has revised its plans for the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program. The space agency will be looking for faster and cheaper ways to accomplish the mission, The Washington Post reported after a teleconference for the media.

The future of the project has been uncertain since last fall, when an independent oversight board issued a report that the mission needed a major overhaul amid likely cost overruns and delays.

The commission’s 2020 report estimated that the return of samples would cost between $3.8 and $4.4 billion. Now, the estimated cost of the mission is between 8.4 and 10.9 billion USD, and the samples will arrive on Earth in 2040.

Thus, the cost of the MSR project will be similar to the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, a scientific and engineering marvel that is currently observing the universe from solar orbit at a distance of about a million kilometers from Earth.

“The estimated 2040 return date is unacceptable,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at a briefing.

This is “unacceptable” because today NASA’s science budget is not enough to finance all the telescopes and space probes that are already operating or are planned to be launched.

Because of this, even NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory laid off about 8% of its employees earlier this year.

The original plan was for NASA to send another spacecraft to Mars, which would land and retrieve samples from Perseverance. This spacecraft will have a launch vehicle on board that will lift off from Mars and deliver the samples into orbit. There, the material will be transferred to another spacecraft that will deliver the samples to Earth.

At the briefing, NASA officials called on the scientific community and industry to come up with new ideas that would use more proven technology – and perhaps a simpler process – to return the samples.