An illustration shows how the NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle, carrying rock and soil samples, could be launched from the surface of Mars in one step of the Mars sample return mission. Photo by JPL-Caltech/NASA
Nov. 10 (UPI) -- In a newly released report, an independent group of scientists and space policy experts offered NASA and the European Space Agency the green light to pursue a Mars Sample Return campaign.
"Full steam ahead," Maria Zuber, Independent Review Board member and vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said during a teleconference on Tuesday.
The review board considered the value of such a mission, as well as the campaign's risks and technical requirements.
"We unanimously agree that NASA and ESA are now ready to carry out a Mars Sample Return, and that the mission has extraordinary potential for world-changing scientific discoveries," said David Thompson, MSR IRB chair and retired president of Orbital ATK.
"That being said, we also recognize that Mars Sample Return is also an extremely ambitious and technically demanding mission," Thompson said.
To meet help NASA meet those technical demands, the review board provided 44 recommendations for addressing potential problems related to the mission's scope and management, technical strategy, schedule and budget.
Mars Sample Return will involve several advanced space vehicles, one of which, NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, is already about half-way to the Red Planet, having been launched earlier this year.
Once on Mars, Perseverance will begin searching for samples to cache inside Jezero Crater.
Once enough valuable Martian soil and rock samples are collected, an ESA-provided "fetch" rover will retrieve the cached samples and deliver them to a NASA-built Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will carry the samples into orbit around Mars.
The MAV craft will rendezvous with an ESA-provided Earth Return Orbiter, which will carry the samples back to Earth inside a highly secure containment capsule.
NASA and ESA have voiced their intention to launch the remaining Mars Sample Return vehicles by 2026, but in the latest report, the Independent Review Board recommended a less accelerated timeline.
"The IRB looked at questions of schedule and costs from several different perspectives," Thompson said. "We compared the actual development times in the most similar set of programs that we could find and concluded from those comparisons that the schedules required to support launches in 2026 were substantially shorter than the most recent similar programs, including those for Mars 2020 and Mars Curiosity."
Thompson and his fellow review board members determined 2028 to be a more realistic target for the next Mars Sample Return launches.
The review board also determined NASA will need about a billion more dollars than what their current budget estimates call for -- an increase of roughly 30 percent.
Though the review board voiced their preference for a slightly delayed launch scheduled, the board members agreed that NASA and ESA should to get to work immediately -- with a focus on building technological redundancies, so that engineers and their space craft systems will be able to adapt to unforeseen challenges.
"Our recommendation is to identify potential challenges and start running those challenges to the ground -- to try to move forward as quickly as possible," Zuber said.