Casey DreierNov 28, 2018

After the Success of InSight, It’s Time for NASA to Commit to Mars Sample Return

In late August 2012, just weeks after the spectacular landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, NASA capitalized on success and announced InSight as its next mission to the Red Planet. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made the connection explicit: "The recent successful landing of the Curiosity rover has galvanized public interest in space exploration and today's announcement makes clear there are more exciting Mars missions to come."

Later that year, the Curiosity team shared their initial, exciting science results at the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union. At the same meeting, the associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld used the opportunity to announce Mars 2020, a flagship-class rover that would take the first step in returning samples from Mars to Earth.

That announcement, in 2012, was the last time NASA committed to a new Mars mission.

InSight's landing provides a rare opportunity for NASA: a Mars success has briefly captured popular and political attention. Stunning pictures of a new Martian landscape have made it to the pages of major news outlets. Millions of people watched its landing around the world. And in perhaps their first time agreeing on anything, President Trump and the New York Times Editorial Board both sang InSight's praises.

As the President's budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 is being finalized, now is the time for NASA to secure a new commitment for the next step at the Red Planet: Mars sample return.

Recall that InSight is a "small" planetary mission compared to the technical and scientific challenges of Mars Sample Return. No other nation has yet achieved a successful landing on Mars, much less attempted to return samples. A clear political commitment now would send an unmistakable signal that the United States intends to continue its leadership at Mars.

Why now? Simple:

InSight's Landing Was a Reminder of the Popularity of Exploring Mars

More than 3.6 million people watched the landing on JPL's YouTube stream alone, with millions more following around the world, including the Vice President. President Trump highlighted the landing at a rally later that night. The New York Times used the opportunity to make the case for planetary exploration in its Editorial section.

Mars Sample Return Is a High Priority of the Scientific Community

The current National Academies decadal survey report on planetary science—the gold standard for scientific consensus in space sciences—declared that: "the highest priority missions for Mars in the coming decade are the elements of the Mars sample return campaign." It recommended that NASA pursue the first step of such a campaign as the highest priority flagship mission in this decade. Mars 2020 is that first step. The rover will launch in 2020 and will begin collecting samples for Earth return in 2021. Now that the first step is happening, the second must be taken.

Mars Sample Return Is Ready To Go

NASA's Associate Administrator of Science Thomas Zurbuchen announced the study of a "lean sample return" effort for Mars in August 2017, which will look to engage commercial and international partners, thereby lowering the overall cost of sample return. He also proposed to move fast, with a launch goal of 2026. Unfortunately, NASA' fiscal year 2019 budget proposal did not contain the coveted "new start" commitment for such a mission, but it did request $50 million in funds to study the concept.

In the meantime, technology development has progressed on critical elements of Mars sample return architecture, including a Mars ascent vehicle rocket necessary to launch samples into orbit. The European Space Agency is actively studying how it could participate in such a campaign. The pieces are there, waiting to be assembled into a full mission.

NASA's Infrastructure Is Aging

With the exception of InSight, NASA's other Mars orbiters and rovers have exceeded their warranty periods. The critical satellite communications infrastructure NASA worked so hard to place at Mars in the 2000s has nothing planned to replace it. Absent this infrastructure, operating Mars sample return and other ground missions becomes much more difficult. Committing to a sample return mission now would give it a fighting chance to utilize the existing infrastructure in the mid-2020s.

Everyone Else Is Going

International interest in Mars will be reaching new peaks in the next decade, with new missions planned by the UAE, China, Japan, and the European Space Agency. NASA should not back down on its leadership of Mars exploration, but instead work with its international partners in an unprecedented joint scientific undertaking to unlock the secrets of Mars' past. Finding a way to work with ESA in a joint sample return mission would again demonstrate the pragmatic benefits of international statecraft and space exploration.

Strike While InSight Is Hot

InSight's success reminds us that audacity in exploration will be rewarded by the public. Taking risks for great rewards excites new generations of scientists and thinkers. Mars sample return represents the most ambitious, audacious effort yet undertaken to secure pristine samples of another world, return them to Earth, and look for life. We don't have to imagine what the future can bring: we can pursue it now. It's time for Mars sample return.

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