Opinion: Martian rocks are a science prize the US can't afford to lose

NASA does difficult, inspiring And ambitious things – and it does them, in the immortal words of President Kennedy, because they are difficult. NASA's most ambitious planetary project yet Mars sample return, a partnership with the European Space Agency to robotically collect scientifically priceless rocks from Mars and return them to Earth for research in laboratories here. But the mission is in trouble.

Mars Sample Return represents the culmination of decades of planning by the planetary science community, and has been the highest science priority of the past two years. Ten-year studies of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The studies are exhaustive reports written over many months by dozens of scientists, intended to help NASA map out its agenda in ten-year increments.

There are compelling reasons to bring back samples from Mars.

The technologies needed to retrieve soil and rocks from Mars will support the technologies needed for NASA Moon to Mars initiative, a grand plan to eventually send people to Mars and bring them home safely. And successfully retrieving research samples from Mars would reaffirm the United States' leadership in robotic space exploration at a time when China has exactly the same price in its sights.

The samples have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the Red Planet's geological history and whether life ever took place there. They will provide vital information about the environment that Mars astronauts would encounter, and they will give us brand new insight into the processes that shape planets in general. Just as scientists have done with 50-year-old Apollo moon samples, what is collected now can be studied for decades to come, taking advantage of analytical capabilities that have yet to be invented and representing a scientific gift that keeps on giving.

The first phase of Mars Sample Return has already begun. In February 2021, the rover arrived Perseverance landed on Mars tasked with collecting air, rock cores and soil that would eventually be returned to Earth. Equipped with an advanced sampling system, Perseverance has already filled 23 collection tubes and has 15 more.

The intended next phase is to send a Lander for collecting samples to rendezvous with Perseverance, transfer the samples and then launch them into space, to be picked up by a Earth Return orbiter supplied by ESA.

But how, when, and even if these next phases will happen is far from certain.

Facing rising costs, NASA commissioned an independent investigation of the entire program in 2023. The evaluation no blows thrownfinding that the likely cost of the project had increased blown up, the organizational structure was not working, and that NASA had not effectively communicated to the scientific community or the public why the massive effort was worthwhile in the first place. Nevertheless, the review emphasized that the scientific and geopolitical value of Mars Sample Return could not be overstated, and that the project could be made affordable.

Still the Senate threatened to decline the budget of the project is substantial and even cancel it completelywhich was in stark contrast to the House's proposal to fully support the program. Congress is now proposing to fund it at some level, but this uncertainty has prompted NASA to “slope back” are Mars Sample Return-related activities. As a result, Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA's lead center for the project, more than 600 employees laid off last month – highly skilled expertise that NASA no longer has access to.

Now Congress has a choice: It can turn its back on Mars Sample Return or commit to funding the most daring planetary robotic science endeavors yet undertaken by humanity.

The monster project must be put on a financially affordable path as part of NASA's overall program for U.S. planetary exploration. Returning samples from Mars cannot come at the expense of every other planetary science endeavor at the agency. A team started developing a cost-effective path forward last year, in response to criticism from the independent review. The proposals are expected later in March.

But even a streamlined and financially sound project of the size and yield of the Mars Sample Return will require more money than previous planetary missions. That's the nature of doing something that's never been done before.

And let's be clear: Stopping the project would not only sacrifice the work already underway, it would be a major blow to the Decadal Survey process, harming not only planetary science, but also the other scientific communities based on have relied on the survey process to establish scientific and funding sources. priorities dating back to the 1960s.

Congress should fund NASA enough to meet the generational goal of returning samples from Mars to Earth. For a faction of the country's annual non-defense expenditures – or approx 5% of what Americans spend on pizza annually – the United States can set its sights on the Red Planet like never before. By doing so, we can answer fundamental questions of planetary science, strengthen our relationships with our international partners, and inspire the next generation of explorers.

Mars Sample Return is difficult, but that's not the problem. For NASA and for the United States, this may be the best reason to do it.

Paul Byrne is an associate professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Vicky Hamilton is an Institute Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Both have business with NASA, but are not directly employed by the agency.

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