One of the Most Difficult Missions Humanity Has Ever Undertaken: NASA Establishes Board to Review Mars Sample Return Plans

Mars 2020 Rover Sample Return Tubes

NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will store rock and soil samples in sealed tubes on the planet’s surface for future missions to retrieve, as seen in this illustration. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The board will assist with analysis of current plans and goals for one of the most difficult missions humanity has ever undertaken.

NASA has established a Mars Sample Return Program Independent Review Board to proactively assist with analysis of current plans and goals for one of the most difficult missions humanity has ever undertaken: the return of samples from another planet to study on Earth.

When the Perseverance rover launched to Mars on July 30, it carried with it a sophisticated sampling system with drill bits, a coring arm, and sample tubes that are the cleanest hardware ever sent to space. Perseverance will collect samples from several spots on Mars for return to Earth so scientists can determine if ancient microbial life was ever present on the Red Planet. The independent review board will help NASA review the technical concept developed during preliminary formulation to date for robustness and the ability to satisfy the mission’s essential requirements. It will help ensure the agency is adopting lessons learned from its experience with previous large, strategic science missions.

“Mars Sample Return is a very high priority for the scientific community, based on the decadal survey and also of strategic importance for our Moon to Mars exploration program,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “It’s a highly complex international mission which requires focus to achieve technical, programmatic and mission success, and we want to have all the expertise available to us at this early stage to maximize mission success.”

NASA has successfully used independent reviews for early-stage strategic missions in the past to put these important science missions on the path to success. As a recent example, the 2017 independent review for the Roman Space Telescope (formerly WFIRST) helped the team make successful scope and cost trades ahead of confirmation.

This first leg in the round trip from Earth to Mars and back would take place over the course of multiple missions in partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) as well as industrial partners. The architecture for the mission in its earliest formulation involves Perseverance taking samples and leaving them on the surface of Mars for a “fetch” rover, which delivers them to an ascent vehicle that would take them to orbit, while an orbiter launched on another mission would rendezvous with the samples and take them in a highly secure containment capsule for landing back on Earth as early as 2031.

The returned samples could potentially provide astrobiological evidence needed to determine if life has ever existed on Mars. The mission itself also advances technologies for human exploration of the Red Planet, including the first launch from the surface of another planet. Strict protocols on forward and backward harmful contamination are being developed for the samples’ return.

“NASA stands up these independent boards to help the agency learn from past experiences and uncover subtle issues in space systems that may not have yet received sufficient attention,” said David Thompson, retired president of Orbital ATK, who will chair the new board. “This review will give us the chance to focus on overall mission success and to consider potential improvements that can be made early in the program to help ensure that outcome.”

Experts from various fields, including planetary protection, and NASA’s partner in the mission, ESA, will be consulted as the review process moves forward. The board is expected to meet for around eight weeks beginning in late August and to deliver a final report in the weeks after its review is complete.

15 Comments on "One of the Most Difficult Missions Humanity Has Ever Undertaken: NASA Establishes Board to Review Mars Sample Return Plans"

  1. Here’s another reason to set up shop on the Moon. With a lab there prepared to receive Martian samples, concerns about contaminating Earth shouldn’t be a problem.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | August 18, 2020 at 2:53 pm | Reply

      There isn’t any good reason to “set up shop on the Moon” unless for Moon science – if you want to go to Mars it is faster and cheaper to target that.

      There will be no sample analysis facilities on the Moon or even ISS at a guess, so the samples will go to usual biohazard labs here on Earth. But the problem isn’t “contaminating Earth” since if there is martian life it hasn’t coevolved with Earth life and can neither use or compete with it. The problem is contaminating the samples – hence clean room facilities are needed.

  2. Sekar Vedaraman | August 17, 2020 at 10:21 pm | Reply

    If moon is too far away, it may be smart to ensure that these samples from space objects, and other are kept in the space station and the Space Station Labs are made full fledged research centers/

    Lots of Physics, Chemistry, biology Scientific advances are possible only in a contimination free Space environment, which may not be possible on earth.

  3. There is no good reason to bother with any complex and very expensive series of sample return missions: a future robotic lab on Mars’ surface could do all sophisticated testing necessary to determine the likelihood of life ever having been present on the planet. Let’s face it: the mention of “life” is a PR tool used to goose public interest in funding space exploration. The likelihood of life being in any non-Earth corner of our hostile solar system is so close to a mathematical “zero” as to be zero. That is all these sample will actually show. Spend the vast money pursuing real science on Mars. Searching primarily —and fruitlessly—for Martian “life” is not it.

    • Yes. The experimental science involved would be carried out by machinery on Earth anyway. The announcements of manned spaceflight to Mars, colonization plans and these sample return missions are all pointless. What will happen will be that the Martian samples will be analyzed, and some passed around as political gifts, and eventually lost, like some of the Moon rocks were. An entire industry has grown up around this that has a life of its own, ignoring the reality of the environment on Mars. There certainly are lots of scientific questions to ask about Mars, but they don’t require the proximity of people. In fact, promoting human involvement undercuts the development of robotics that could efficiently replace them. As usual, the cheerleaders drive the science, and not the reasonable hypotheses.

      • Torbjörn Larsson | August 18, 2020 at 3:01 pm | Reply

        “The experimental science involved would be carried out by machinery on Earth anyway.”

        As anyone having visited a lab can attest, that isn’t how it is done. Oh, sure, some of the analysis equipment can run an automatic analysis if it is properly set up. Which takes many hours of painstaking manual labor to do…

        As usual, when informed scientists inspire an article, people start to wave conspiracy theory of “cheerleaders drive science” around, based on no data whatsoever. Don’t you ever get bored with your dead end idea and being shown up by successful science how dead end it is?

    • Torbjörn Larsson | August 18, 2020 at 2:57 pm | Reply

      We don’t know how to do that analysis remotely, it is too complex and open ended, which is why the protocols need laboratories on Earth.

      And even if you suddenly came up with some idea to do part of what is needed, it is unlikely to be ready for the early 30s.

      Astrobiology is an established science. And even if it wasn’t, science is to test and find out, not to do some unfounded handwaving from an armchair.

      And why not, biologists think that since life evolved so easily on Earth it will also evolve in similar environments elsewhere – such as early Mars had.

  4. cordwainer hawk | August 18, 2020 at 6:43 am | Reply

    ISS isnt an uncontaminated environment, period. and there is no comparison between in situ, extremely limited portsbke technology and the chance to send samples to every first-rate lab on earth. the interest in Martian life comes from the scientific priorities of TPS, etc and you can “face it.” glad nobody at TPS, nasa, etc is listening to you.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | August 18, 2020 at 3:04 pm | Reply

      Yes! Reportedly ISS is pretty much like your own bath room in cleanliness, E. coli and molds everywhere whether or not you see them. Of course, a mobile phone is even worse for E. coli, no reason not to be an astronaut… 😀

  5. Timothy Allen | August 18, 2020 at 6:53 am | Reply

    You’ve got to be kidding me: “One of the Most Difficult Missions Humanity Has Ever Undertaken” ??? Excuse me , but that would be GLOBAL WARMING. Look, I’m all about science, but this is MISGUIDED.

  6. god damn millions hungry homeless and this sht happens…get a fking life for christ sake this is wasteful pipedream bllsht

    • Torbjörn Larsson | August 18, 2020 at 3:05 pm | Reply

      And another one that can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. Science *helps* against poverty, check with Gapminder.

  7. @ Michael, please go back to your cave and while in your cave please come up with something more original. The hunger issue is not going to be solve by not going to space.

    • The hunger issue will be exacerbated by wasting resources, creating industries that generate pollutants and drive global warming, destroying our ability to live on Earth, and basically caving into politically driven escapades that do nothing for people who live here. Science is great. But science is about understanding, not flag-waving horse races to Mars. That is just idiocy.

      • Torbjörn Larsson | August 18, 2020 at 3:08 pm | Reply

        No, it isn’t and you don’t provide data.

        NASA show that ISS – say- helps science from statistics. Why on. or off, Earth would you want to direct money away from science when it is helping fight, say, global warming? Satellites are an essential tool and if this hadn’t happened climate science would have been less developed and we had not known as much of what is happening or what we can do.

        Luddites are such an old and misguided politics. Astounding that it is still around.

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