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NASA Mars Rock Retrieval Could Take 10 Years To Return – ESA May Have a Solution

Last Updated April 16, 2024 7:01 PM
James Morales
Last Updated April 16, 2024 7:01 PM

Key Takeaways

  • NASA is exploring alternative options to return samples from Mars after its initial plans started to run over budget.
  • The European Space Agency (ESA) is building a spacecraft that will return rocks from the red planet.
  • Whatever happens to the mission, the ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will probably still have a role to play.

Bringing physical samples back from Mars for analysis is a major goal of NASA’s ongoing explorations of the planet. But budget constraints mean the original plan to return rocks currently being collected by the Perseverance rover is being overhauled.

As NASA looks for a cheaper way to complete the mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) may have a more prominent role in any new plans.

Mars Rock Retrieval Runs Over Budget

A joint endeavor between NASA and ESA, the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program originally planned to retrieve roughly 300g of material from the red planet in 2033.

However, a recent cost analysis found that the current mission design wouldn’t be able to stick to that timeline without additional funds. 

In order to meet the deadline, NASA calculated that it would need up to $11 billion  – a far cry from the $5–$7 billion allotted to the project.

Without additional funding and facing a 10-year delay otherwise, NASA is now exploring alternative options.

“We are looking at out-of-the-box possibilities that could return the samples earlier and at a lower cost,” said Dr Nicola Fox, the director of NASA’s science directorate.

“This is definitely a very ambitious goal, and we’re going to need to go after some very innovative new possibilities for design, and certainly leave no stone unturned,” she added.

ESA Spacecraft Still Central to Mars Plans

While potential changes to the MRS campaign include using a smaller, cheaper rocket to transport the samples into orbit, Fox said it is likely that ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will still be used to collect them and carry them back to Earth.

Currently scheduled to launch in 2027, the ERO will take around 5 years to complete its journey to Mars. Once there, it will act as a communication relay with various rovers on the planet’s surface before returning to Earth once it has collected the samples from Perseverance.

A pan-European collaboration, specialist manufacturers across the continent have contributed to building the vessel.

For instance, its batteries and chemical propulsion systems originate from the UK, its propulsion and navigation systems are being developed in Germany and the all-important solar array is Norweigan. Final assembly is expected to take place in France.

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