NASA wants a cheaper Mars sample return – Boeing proposes the most expensive rocket
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NASA wants a cheaper Mars sample return – Boeing proposes the most expensive rocket

The Space Launch System rocket takes off on the Artemis I mission.
Enlarge / The Space Launch System rocket takes off on the Artemis I mission.

NASA is looking for ways to get rock samples back from Mars for less than the $11 billion the agency would need under its own plan. That's why officials last month called on industry to suggest ideas.

Boeing is the first company to release details of how it would conduct a Mars sample return mission. The study includes a single flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the super-heavy-lift rocket designed to send astronauts to the moon as part of NASA's Artemis missions.

Jim Green, former NASA chief scientist and longtime head of the agency's planetary science division, introduced Boeing's concept Wednesday at the Humans to Mars summit, an annual event sponsored mostly by traditional space companies. Boeing is the prime contractor for the core and upper stages of the SLS and designed the SLS, primarily a crew launch vehicle, as a rocket for military satellites and space probes.

All in one

Green, now retired, said the concept he and Boeing engineers proposed would reduce the risks of Mars sample return. There are fewer potential sources of error in a mission, he said.

“To reduce mission complexity, this new concept performs a single launch,” Green said.

This argument makes perfect sense, but the problem is that SLS is the most expensive rocket you can fly today. Even if NASA and Boeing implemented cost-cutting measures, it is unlikely that the cost of a single SLS launch would fall below $2 billion, NASA's inspector general reported last year. The inspector general recommended that NASA consider purchasing commercial rockets as an alternative to SLS for future Artemis missions.

NASA's Perseverance rover, operating on Mars since February 2021, collects soil and rock core samples and seals them in 43 cigar-sized titanium tubes. The rover dropped the first ten of these tubes into a depot on the surface of Mars, which could be recovered on a future sample return mission. The remaining tubes will likely remain stowed on Perseverance in the hopes that the rover will pass the samples directly to the spacecraft that comes to Mars to retrieve them.

Boeing says a single launch of the Space Launch System rocket could carry everything needed for a Mars sample return mission.
Enlarge / Boeing says a single launch of the Space Launch System rocket could carry everything needed for a Mars sample return mission.

Boeing

In his remarks, Green emphasized the advantages of launching a Mars sample return mission with a single rocket and spacecraft. NASA's basic concept calls for two launches, one with a U.S.-built lander and a small rocket to carry the rocket samples back from the surface of Mars, and another with a European spacecraft that rendezvous with the sample carrier in orbit around Mars and then brings him samples back to Earth.

“This concept is a launch vehicle,” he said. “It’s the SLS. What is it doing? It carries a huge payload. What is the payload? It is a Mars entry and descent aircraft shell. It has a propulsion module for descent.”

The lander would carry everything needed to bring the samples back to Earth. A pickup rover aboard the lander would go out and pick up the sample tubes collected by the Perseverance rover. Then a robotic arm would transfer the sample tubes to a container at the top of a two-stage rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which sits on top of the lander. The MAV would have the momentum needed to launch the samples from the Martian surface into orbit and then fire engines to set a course back to Earth.

Boeing has no direct experience as a prime contractor for a Mars mission. SpaceX, with its giant Starship rocket designed for eventual Mars missions, and Lockheed Martin, which has built several Mars landers for NASA, are the companies with the technology and expertise that appear to be most useful for Mars sample returns.

NASA is also gathering ideas for Mars sample return from its space centers in the United States. The agency also hired the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was responsible for developing the original Dead-on-Arrival concept, to come up with a better idea. Later this year, NASA officials will use these new proposals when deciding how to proceed with Mars sample returns, with the goal of getting samples back from Mars in the 2030s.