Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief… this week, NASA has made a big announcement about its future plans to retrieve a sample from Mars. We’ll be looking at 1) what company just got the go-ahead to help build the Mars Ascent Vehicle, 2) what the costs and challenges of firing a rocket off Mars will actually be, and 3) why NASA is so excited about what this mission may yield on down the road if it succeeds.
Quote of the Week
“Rocket science has been mythologized all out of proportion to its true difficulty.”
As always, you’ll find a summary of all our latest stories and original reporting at the end of this week’s newsletter. And with that, it’s time to turn our focus toward NASA’s ambitious plans to fire a rocket off the surface of Mars, and change history by bringing home souvenirs from the Red Planet in the process.
Lockheed Gets the Go-Ahead for NASA’s Mars Sample Return Mission
Lockheed Martin Space will be lending NASA a hand with the retrieval of samples from Mars in the years ahead, the U.S. space agency has recently announced.
NASA says the company has been awarded a contract to build the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which will bring geological and atmospheric samples from the Red Planet back to Earth, according to a press statement dated February 7. The costly endeavor, running a tab of an estimated $194 million, seeks to be the “first robotic round-trip” to retrieve Martian samples for study.
NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen said in a press statement that the agency and its partners “are nearing the end of the conceptual phase for this Mars Sample Return mission,” adding that “the pieces are coming together to bring home the first samples from another planet.”
A Mission Both Costly, and Challenging
The effort is expected to be as challenging as it is expensive. With its production of the MAV, Lockheed Martin Space must deliver a craft compatible with several different spacecraft, and capable of doing so in the extremities of the Martian environment. All this, in addition to being small enough to be able to be contained within the Sample Retrieval Lander, which NASA hopes to launch sometime in 2026.
“Lockheed Martin Space will provide multiple MAV test units and a flight unit,” read the NASA statement. “Work under the contract includes designing, developing, testing, and evaluating the integrated MAV system, and designing and developing of the rocket’s ground support equipment.” Construction and testing will begin later this month and will remain underway for the next several years.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, while acknowledging the investment required, expressed that the effort will be in the furtherance of NASA’s role as leaders in 21st-century space exploration and discovery.
“America’s investment in our Mars Sample Return program will fulfill a top priority planetary science goal and demonstrate our commitment to global partnerships,” Nelson said in a statement, “ensuring NASA remains a leader in exploration and discovery.”
The Mars Sample Return program, if successful, will represent more than just the retrieval of samples from another planet for study here on Earth. In doing so, it will also require the first launch of a rocket from another planet.
Another key component of the mission involves NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander, which will both carry the MAV to Mars, and also collect samples at Jezero Crater that are currently being harvested by Perseverance, NASA’s latest robotic rover to have landed on Mars as of last year.
Upon collection of samples, they are to be returned to Earth by being carried into orbit, where a European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft equipped with NASA’s Capture, Containment, and Return System, will retrieve the samples and bring them back to Earth. Once successfully retrieved, the mission will allow NASA to study the samples “using the most sophisticated instruments around the world,” technologies it says are currently impossible to carry into space and control remotely.
Setting the Pace for Future Discovery
The success of the Mars Sample Return program will mark a milestone in space exploration that has existed for nearly five decades, having been noted as a priority by the two most recent past Planetary Decadal Surveys by the United States National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences.
In addition to the opportunities for studies that the mission will afford NASA and the ESA, there remains the possibility that new information they may yield could provide clues about not only the early development of the planet itself, but whether life once existed on Mars.
“The samples collected by Perseverance during its exploration of an ancient river delta are thought to present the best opportunity to reveal the early evolution of Mars,” NASA said in the press statement, “including the potential for life.”
Calling the endeavor “a significant step that will ultimately help send the first astronauts to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed his hope that the mission will set the pace for future missions to Mars, and perhaps to even more distant planetary locales.