NASA Commissions Studies to Optimize Mars Sample Return Mission

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 10, 2024 09:30
Nasa Commissions Studies To Optimize Mars Sample Return Mission

NASA has selected seven companies to conduct studies on innovative concepts for the Mars Sample Return (MSR) program, aiming to deliver samples from Mars more efficiently and at a lower cost.

The selected companies—Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Quantum Space, SpaceX, and Whittinghill Aerospace—will each receive up to $1.5 million for 90-day studies focused on alternative MSR approaches.

This initiative is part of NASA’s effort to reassess and potentially overhaul the current MSR strategy, which has been criticized for its projected cost of up to $11 billion and a timeline extending to 2040. By exploring "out of the box" solutions, NASA hopes to expedite the sample return process and reduce expenses.

Reassessing the Mars Sample Return Mission

The decision to seek new MSR strategies follows an independent assessment last September that cast doubt on the feasibility of the existing plan in terms of cost and schedule. The current approach is seen as both financially burdensome and time-consuming, necessitating a reevaluation to meet more practical and attainable objectives.

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NASA Administrator Bill Nelson emphasized the mission's complexity and the necessity for a quicker, safer, and more cost-effective approach. The studies will explore various aspects of the MSR mission, including the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a critical component responsible for launching collected samples from the Martian surface into orbit.

Msr Illustration

Proposals from Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, and Whittinghill Aerospace specifically target improvements to the MAV, while SpaceX proposes utilizing its Starship vehicle and Blue Origin considers leveraging components from the Artemis lunar exploration program.

The MAV is a significant element of the MSR mission due to its role in overcoming Mars’ gravity, which adds a layer of complexity and cost. Sandra Connelly, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for science, noted that the MAV is one of the key factors driving the mission's complexity and cost.

The studies aim to explore various propulsion technologies and designs that could make the MAV more efficient and reliable. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s focus on a high-performance liquid-fueled MAV and Northrop Grumman’s examination of high Technology Readiness Level (TRL) propulsion systems exemplify the range of innovative approaches being considered.

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Diverse Approaches from Leading Space Companies

Each of the selected companies brings a unique perspective and expertise to the table. Lockheed Martin, renowned for its experience in building spacecraft that have successfully landed on Mars, will perform rapid mission design studies for MSR. Northrop Grumman, a key partner in developing the current solid-fueled MAV, aims to apply its existing capabilities to streamline the sample return process.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, best known for its rocket propulsion systems, plans to study a high-performance liquid-fueled MAV using mature propulsion technologies to enhance affordability and schedule adherence.

SpaceX, with its ambitious long-term vision for Mars, is also a significant player in this initiative. The company’s study, titled "Enabling Mars Sample Return with Starship," leverages its development of the Starship rocket, which is designed for deep space missions, including potential manned missions to Mars.

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SpaceX’s involvement highlights the potential for utilizing the Starship to not only deliver cargo to Mars but also to facilitate the return of samples to Earth. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, has expressed confidence in the Starship's capability to land on Mars, although such milestones remain aspirational and contingent on further technological advancements and successful test flights.

Blue Origin, another major contender in the commercial space sector, will explore the integration of components from the Artemis program into the MSR mission. This approach underscores the potential synergy between lunar and Martian exploration efforts, potentially reducing costs and leveraging existing technologies. Blue Origin’s proposal, titled "Leveraging Artemis for Mars Sample Return," aims to utilize the Space Launch System (SLS) and the lunar Gateway as part of the MSR mission architecture.

Supporting Studies from NASA Centers and Partners

In addition to the industry studies, NASA is supporting similar research conducted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), and several NASA centers. These studies will run concurrently with the industry efforts, adhering to a mid-July start, with interim and final reports due in 45 and 90 days, respectively.

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The results will inform NASA’s decisions on potential revisions to the MSR architecture, with a target to establish a definitive path forward by early 2025. NASA's goals include reducing the overall and peak annual spending on the MSR mission while potentially accelerating the timeline for returning samples to Earth.

The involvement of smaller companies like Quantum Space and Whittinghill Aerospace adds another layer of innovation and diversity to the initiative. Quantum Space, founded by entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian, is described as a space infrastructure company and will conduct a study titled "Quantum Anchor Leg Mars Sample Return Study." This study could potentially focus on the final stage of returning samples to Earth, analogous to the anchor leg in a relay race. Whittinghill Aerospace, with its focus on a single-stage MAV, aims to offer a streamlined and efficient solution for launching samples from Mars.

The Path Forward for Mars Sample Return

NASA’s approach to commissioning these studies reflects a comprehensive effort to explore all possible avenues for improving the MSR mission. Nicola Fox, head of NASA’s science directorate, emphasized the need for "out of the box" concepts to achieve the ambitious goal of returning samples by the 2030s rather than the previously projected 2040 or later. The diversity of proposals and the inclusion of both established aerospace giants and innovative newcomers highlight NASA’s commitment to leveraging a wide range of expertise and technologies.

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The culmination of these studies will provide NASA with a wealth of data and potential solutions, allowing the agency to craft a new approach for the Mars Sample Return mission. This new strategy will likely incorporate a mix of elements from various proposals, integrating industry innovations with NASA’s existing capabilities and the European Space Agency’s contributions. The collaborative effort underscores the international and multi-faceted nature of space exploration, paving the way for groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in planetary science.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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