Congress, NASA

The return of Mars Sample Return?

Last week, to the surprise of many, NASA announced it would launch in 2020 a Mars rover based on the Curiosity spacecraft currently exploring the Martian surface. While NASA was studying options for a mission either the 2018 or 2020 launch windows, based on the options developed by the Mars Program Planning Group earlier this year after NASA terminated its cooperation with ESA on ExoMars, the timing in particular was unexpected since a decision was thought to be deferred to the release of the fiscal year 2014 budget proposal in February. John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said last week that the decision on the 2020 rover had been cleared with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

The decision did get some immediate Congressional support. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes JPL, said he was “pleased” with the decision in a statement his office released just a couple hours after Grunsfeld announced the 2020 rover mission in a talk at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting. Schiff, though, wasn’t settling for a 2020 mission. “While a 2020 launch would be favorable due to the alignment of Earth and Mars, a launch in 2018 would be even more advantageous as it would allow for an even greater payload to be launched to Mars,” he said, adding that he would work with NASA, Congress, and the White House to try and advance the mission to the earlier launch window. (Grunsfeld, in a press conference a few hours after the announcement, said that getting the rover done for the 2020 launch window was challenging enough.)

The mission also got an endorsement from Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), whose district in the next Congress includes most of Pasadena. “After facing a nearly 40% cut earlier this year, we have now won an important victory – it’s [sic] future is secure,” she said in a statement, referring to NASA’s Mars exploration program. “I am going to fight to make sure we get the most out of this mission.”

Missed in the Congressional and other praise about NASA’s decision (as well as some dissent from other planetary scientists who would prefer to fund other planetary missions, such as one to Jupiter’s moon Europa) is the fact that the selection of this rover mission is, in effect, a return to a Mars sample return architecture the administration has rejected just earlier this year. As an insider familiar with the development of NASA’s Mars exploration program notes in this week’s The Space Review, the rover is most likely going to have the ability to cache samples for later return to Earth, just as the original 2018 ExoMars rover mission was intended to do. (Grunsfeld said that a decision on whether the rover will collect samples would be made by a science definition team, but that team would be “front-loaded” with scientists who supported that.) Such a mission would also aligned with the planetary science decadal survey last year, which picked a Mars rover to cache samples as its highest priority flagship-class mission.

20 comments to The return of Mars Sample Return?

  • OK as long as some idiot politician doesn’t insist an SLS be used to get it to Mars rather than a Falcon Heavy. If that happens, the damned thing will never be launched.

    • JimNobles

      I hope no one is planning any mission too massive to make use of FH’s 50mT capacity. I think that would be a silly mistake at this point. The FH doesn’t exist yet but I consider it far more likely to become operational than the SLS.

    • Ben Russell-Gough

      My understanding is that they’re planning it to be a dual launch, the MSR piggy-backing on one of the Orion/SLS’s flights to HLO/EML. That said, I don’t think that they have thought it through very clearly because the existing SLS Block-I doesn’t have enough through-escape dV to launch an Orion through TLI and a heavy probe through TMI.

      Jim – Remember that Falcon Heavy has a mediocre-impulse upper stage; it’s through-TMI performance is only about 10t. Optimistically, that’s less than 5t mission payload to Martian surface.

      • JimNobles

        Jim – Remember that Falcon Heavy has a mediocre-impulse upper stage; it’s through-TMI performance is only about 10t. Optimistically, that’s less than 5t mission payload to Martian surface.

        I know, but I guess I was thinking about which booster we would most likely end up with. I’m one of those people who doubts SLS may ever launch. And if it does launch, how soon will it be ready and how often can we afford to launch it?

        Maybe I’m just being a pessimist.

  • James

    Question: Is the planned 2020 MARS mission just announced, within the budgetary guidelines that were submitted in the presidents FY 13 budget last February?

    If so, what’s the big deal here? Its not like they are upping the budget for the MARS Program.

  • JimNobles

    If I may indulge in Science Fiction for a moment… I wonder what we could do with a combined FH and F9 mission? With a non-elegant docking of the two payloads in LEO would that get us enough propellant for a decent payload through TMI? Would there be enough mass allowance to let the TMI stage continue on to Mars then loop around on a slow trip back to LEO? Perhaps to be used again?

    Okay, sorry. Thanks for your indulgence.

    • Robert G. Oler

      entertaining the Falcon 91.1 takes the payload to orbit and docks with a pretty full second stage ….hmm have to think of that I am sort of thinking on the loop back…something clever with lunar gravity RGO

    • Robert G. Oler

      Jim Nobles. I did a little keyboarding on this..particularly after I looked at the Falcon heavy mission profile for the USAF…

      My notions would require some modification to at least 1 Falcon second stage (the one on the heavy) but these are things that they might find useful anyway.

      In my theory the Falcon 9 1.1 would launch with the “stack” of Mars probes in a modest satellite carrier that on one end had some form of docking system…the Heavy would launch and put a second stage into orbit almost full with little payload except (and one would have to keep the masses from adding up to quickly here)

      1. a modest to large solar array on the “trunk”, some deep space com systems maybe even some SES propulsion and
      2. a rendezvous docking system.

      It docks with the Falcon 9 “mass” and the probes which are launched more or less “sleeping” then start getting keep alive stuff from the Heavy second stage (HSS).

      the heavy second stage burns into solar transfer orbit, unfurls its large arrays/antennas etc and transits to Mars perhaps using SES devices to “push along”

      The vehicle would be on an impact course until it released the “lander(s)” then it would change into an orbit profile and go into orbit

      it could then release whatever it needed to or hold onto whatever needed to be held onto, and that might include an earth return stage…in the meantime it acts as a real comm platform

      The masses add up quickly here but it might be doable


  • Robert G. Oler

    Off topic

    Congratulations to the folks in North Korea (and maybe Iran) who put together their successful launch. It is an impressive piece of engineering in taken old but functional rocket moters (R-9 knockoffs) and fashioning them into a functional vehicle.

    they managed to do what the much more rich and powerful South Koreans have not been able to do with considerable Russian help.

    you sort of have the sense that had the Third Reich not engaged in a world war with two nascent superpowers; this is what would have eventually ended up launching the worlds first satellite.

    (and no we should not get all excited about the ICBM potential…this is not a functional ICBM)

    Remain calm RGO

    • common sense

      “Remain calm”

      But what if they set up a Moon base with military intent or worse collect He3 for their fusion program???? This is not laughing matter! Darn. Come on Robert.

    • Justin Kugler

      It would seem that they still haven’t figured out the satellite control mechanics, though. :)

      • Robert G. Oler

        When the thing came over Santa Fe it was quiet on all the frequencies that I was listening on from 136 to 500 mhz…nothing . I dont have X band up so if it was doing something there I am out of luck. Should have looked on HF but would have to do it manually the PC controlled rig isnt up and going.

        They probably tried “to much” Of a satellite…It looked like they were doing some gravity gradient stuff and that takes a little finise in terms of deployment RGO

        • Ben Russell-Gough

          I’m betting that it was an inert shell – They couldn’t put a satellite together (either lack of resources or lack of skills), so they launched an inert shell and are going to claim that it broke down after a few orbits due to either thermal effects or unspecified “foreign interference”.

          • Robert G. Oler

            A chunk of concrete acting as a satellite would not surprise me. They exhibited something that looked like one of the Hamsats by Surrey…Wingo had some interesting (and probably accurate) comments on it.

            But the US launches “mass simulators” a lot and it wouldnt surprise me if they did the same thing. When you control the news to your people then everytime it comes over the beloved homeland it can sing the praises of Dear or Benevolent Leader (which is the new guy?)

            The satellite that they paraded around seemed “ambitious” to me.

            and the folks in South Korea are so paranoid that they would probably believe that the North has just launched the equivalent of a KH their Russian more or less built launcher is stalled.

            Still listening but so far nothing. I routinely pick up one of the old Explorers that sometimes come on with this…and they are very weak so I should hear it. Had a darn near overhead pass nothing where I am listening.

            No matter what they put on the rocket, the rocket is an impressive achievement. North Korea is a horrible state but some people there worked pretty hard to make it happen and I bet they didnt get much for it, maybe an extra slice of bread…

            Robert G. Oler WB5MZO

  • vulture4

    Let’s see… North Korea has the satellite, South Korea has Hundai and Samsung. But hey, we need a moon race with China to prove we lead the world.

    Regarding Mars sample return, given the improvements in in situ instruments, I’m not sure it’s the best use of our dollars. Mars is a huge planet, with a land area the same as earth’s land area. Sample return can bring back only a tiny fraction of what faster, more autonomous rovers could examine.

  • Bennett In Vermont

    I would much rather see a rover mission (or anything) to Europa.

    • Neil Shipley

      Yep, been to Mars, done that sampling stuff. Let’s see a mission to Europa, interesting active moon, or alternatively, a manned Mars mission.

  • E.P. Grondine

    Roving up (or down) Valles Marineris with HD camera. Call the mission “Powell”.

    A light ball rover might be useful for this, I don’t know how the development is going. Low launch cost as well, providing communication link in orbit exists.

  • Fred Willett

    Don’t new programs usually get announced as part of the budget process?
    But here NASA has suddenly “found” the money for this elsewhere in the budget. Well maybe.
    It sounds to me like NASA just wanted to get this mission “on the books” ahead of the comming budget cuts.
    Maybe it’s just something to trade to protect other programs. Who knows.
    When the real budget comes out post cliff we’ll see. I won’t believe it’s a real program till then.

  • Aberwys

    Drill, baby, drill!

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