NASA has outlined its path forward on the Mars Sample Return programme, including seeking innovative designs to return samples from Mars to Earth. NASA’s Perseverance rover (pictured on Mars in November 2023) has been collecting samples for later collection and return to Earth since it landed on Mars in 2021.

Over the last quarter century, NASA has engaged in a systematic effort to determine the early history of Mars and how it can help us understand the formation and evolution of habitable worlds, including Earth. As part of that effort, Mars Sample Return has been a long-term goal of international planetary exploration for the past two decades.

“Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions NASA has ever undertaken. The bottom line is, an $11 billion budget is too expensive, and a 2040 return date is too far away,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

“Safely landing and collecting the samples, launching a rocket with the samples off another planet – which has never been done before – and safely transporting the samples more than 33 million miles back to Earth is no small task. We need to look outside the box to find a way ahead that is both affordable and returns samples in a reasonable timeframe.”

The agency also has released NASA’s response to a Mars Sample Return Independent Review Board report from September 2023. This includes: an updated mission design with reduced complexity; improved resiliency; risk posture; stronger accountability and coordination; and an overall budget likely in the $8 billion to $11 billion range. The current mission design will return samples in 2040.

To achieve the ambitious goal of returning the key samples to Earth earlier and at a lower cost, the agency is asking the NASA community to work together to develop a revised plan that leverages innovation and proven technology. Additionally, NASA soon will solicit architecture proposals from industry that could return samples in the 2030s, and lowers cost, risk, and mission complexity.
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