Review board green lights NASA for Mars Sample Return project
An independent review board has issued a report saying that NASA is capable of carrying out its Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign that involves a series of missions to collect pristine samples from the Red Planet and return them to Earth.
Perhaps the most ambitious and complex deep space project to be carried out to date, the Mars Sample Return campaign is already underway as NASA's Perseverance rover mission is a little over three months away from touching down in Mars. One of its primary mission objectives is to collect samples of soil and rock where life could exist now or in the past and package them in a number of collection tubes that will be cached on the surface.
The next phases of the project involve an ESA rover collecting the tubes, then delivering them to a NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle. This will then rocket the sample collection into Mars orbit, where it will rendezvous with an ESA Earth Return Orbiter for delivery home in a highly secure containment capsule.
Such an endeavor involving several advanced spacecraft requires a very high degree of confidence in the ability of NASA to complete its side of the operations. One failure in any of the individual missions could seriously delay returning the Martian samples or result in the entire project failing completely.
It's therefore not surprising that the space agency requested an MSR Independent Review Board (IRB) to be convened at such an early stage of the campaign when some of the later stages are still only in the concept phase. Chaired by retired president and CEO of defense and space contractor Orbital ATK, David Thompson, the IRB is composed of 10 leaders from the scientific and engineering fields and has met 25 times since it first convened in August, making it the earliest independent review of any NASA Science Mission Directorate large strategic mission.
According to the board's findings, NASA is ready to undertake the sample return missions based on the agency's decades of work on Mars exploration, as well as its close partnerships with ESA on both robotic and human missions. Both agencies were commended for their early and in-depth analysis of how to jointly approach future planning and development. The board also made 44 recommendations regarding areas of concern involving management, technical approach, schedule, and funding.
NASA says that it will consider all of the board's recommendations.
"The MSR campaign is a highly ambitious, technically demanding, and multi-faceted planetary exploration program with extraordinary scientific potential for world-changing discoveries," says Thompson. "After a thorough review of the agency’s planning over the past several years, the IRB unanimously believes that NASA is now ready to carry out the MSR program, the next step for robotic exploration of Mars."