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NASA pauses plan to return samples from Mars as costs skyrocket | CBC News

NASA’s plan to bring samples from Mars back to Earth is on hold until there is a faster, cheaper way, space agency officials said Monday.

Recovering Martian soil and rock has been on NASA’s to-do list for decades, but the date kept slipping as costs skyrocketed. A recent independent study put the total cost at $8 billion to $11 billion, with an arrival date of 2040, about a decade later than announced.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said it was too much, too late. He is asking the private sector and space agency centers to find other options to revise the project. With NASA facing sweeping budget cuts, he wants to avoid cutting other science projects to fund the Mars sampling project.

“We want to get every new and fresh idea we can,” he said at a news conference.

NASA’s Perseverance rover has already collected 24 core samples in tubes since landing in Mars’ Jezero Crater, an ancient river delta, in 2021. The goal is to collect more than 30 samples to search for possible traces of ancient life on Mars.

The space agency wants to return at least some of the collected samples to Earth sometime in the 2030s for no more than $7 billion. This would require a spacecraft flying to Mars to retrieve the tubes and launch them from the planet. Then it has to rendezvous with another spacecraft that would bring the samples to Earth.

A white and gold tube lies on a red, rocky surface.
NASA’s Perseverance rover deposited the first of several samples on the surface of Mars on December 21, 2022. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

NASA’s science mission chief Nicky Fox declined to speculate at the news conference about when the samples might arrive on Earth or how many samples might be returned, given a new program and schedule. That information would be included in any proposals, she said.

“We have never launched from another planet, and that is what makes returning Mars samples such a challenging and interesting mission,” Fox said.

Scientists are eager to analyze pristine samples from Mars in their own laboratories, far superior to the rudimentary tests conducted by spacecraft on the Red Planet. According to NASA, such in-depth tests are needed to confirm evidence of microscopic life dating back billions of years to when water flowed on the planet.

The samples will help NASA decide where astronauts go on Mars in the 2040s, Nelson said.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, was responsible for the example project. Hundreds of layoffs occurred earlier this year due to budget cuts. Nelson is seeking ideas from across the space agency, with plans to expand the revised program more widely.

NASA hopes to receive ideas by late fall.

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