On Monday, Feb. 10, the White House released its 2021 federal budget request, and in it, the administration identified NASA’s Mars sample return plans as a top priority. It also earmarked funding for a future mission to map out where ice is located on Mars.
The request asks for $25.2 billion for NASA, which is roughly a 12% boost over what the agency’s current budget is.
Of that $25.2 billion, Trump has designated $233 million for “Mars Future Missions” — one of which hopes to transport pristine pieces of the Red Planet to Earth, sometime around the 2031 time frame.
“Mars Future supports the development of the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission that is planning to enter formulation (Phase A) as early as the summer of FY 2020,” NASA officials wrote in a description of the agency’s proposed 2021 allocation.
“In FY 2021, MSR formulation activities include concept and technology development, and early design and studies in support of the Sample Return Lander and the Capture/Containment and Return System,” they added. “Mars Future also supports a study of the facility required for handling of returned samples.”
The samples NASA is referring to will be collected by NASA’s next Mars rover, which is scheduled to launch in July. Dubbed the Mars 2020 rover, the six-wheeled robot will land on Mars in Feb. 2021, touching down inside Jezero Crater. It’s goal: to look for signs of life, and to collect samples of Mars for future return to Earth.
The rover, which will receive an official name sometime in March, will bag and tag samples of rocks and dirt, sealing them in canisters for eventual return to Earth. Once they arrive here, scientists all around the world will be able to study the samples and better understand our celestial neighbor.
The sample return part of the mission is a collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). It will be a multi-step process, which includes the launch of NASA’s Sample Return Lander (SRL) followed by ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter (ERO).
The logistics are still being finalized as NASA is looking for a director to lead the program. But a rough outline of the planned return can be broken down as follows:
NASA’s sample return vehicle will carry a small rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) along with an ESA-built rover, called the Sample Fetch Rover (SRF). The SRF will seek out the samples collected by the 2020 rover, and haul them to the MAV.
From there, the MAV will then launch the samples into orbit around Mars; there they’ll be picked up by the ERO, and the craft will head back toward Earth. Once in close proximity to Earth, the ERO will jettison the container, and it will land in the Utah desert. NASA expects this to all happen around 2031, although none of the dates are official at this point.
Also outlined in the budget is a need for a Sampling Receiving Facility, where the precious bits of Mars will be handled with the utmost care. In the facility, scientists will catalog the samples, and make sure that there’s no cross-contamination with Earth particles. (And to ensure that if there is life on Mars, no little Martian microbes will get out into the environment.)
But that’s not all, the “Mars Future Missions” budgetary line also allows for a collaboration with Canada to create the Mars Ice Mapper. Detailed information on this project is scarce at the moment as it’s in its very early stages.
“The Mars Ice Mapper is a remote sensing mission under study intended to map and profile the near-surface (3-15 meters) water ice, particularly that which lies in the mid-latitude regions, in support of future science and exploration missions,” NASA officials wrote in the budget document.
The Mars Ice Mapper could be a preliminary step in the effort to put humans on Mars, a goal NASA aims to accomplish sometimes in the 2030’s.
The 2021 budget request allocates more money to future Mars missions than previous budgets have, lining up with NASA’s overall goal of sending astronauts to both the moon and Mars.
If this budget request is any indication, the “Mars Future Missions” programs could set their budgets steadily increased as the years progress. But it’s not set in stone. The request is just that, a request. Congress has the ultimate approval and could choose to fund everything as it, or shuffle things around. Let’s hope it’s the latter so valuable programs, like STEM engagement, Earth science missions, and an incredible telescope are not cancelled.