Mars Sample Return cost growth threatens other science missions

WASHINGTON — NASA’s effort to return samples from Mars is dealing with rising prices that’s placing strain not simply on different planetary science missions but additionally a serious heliophysics mission.

NASA, in its fiscal 12 months 2024 finances proposal, requested $949.3 million for Mars Pattern Return (MSR), this system that may ship missions to Mars to take samples collected by the Perseverance rover and return them to Earth. MSR is a joint effort with the European House Company, with NASA main work on a lander and ESA an orbiter.

That funding isn’t solely a major improve from the $653.2 million appropriated for MSR in fiscal 12 months 2023, but additionally a 19% improve from the $800 million NASA projected final 12 months spending on this system in fiscal 12 months 2024. “The finances helps elevated necessities in [fiscal year] 2024 to make sure the mission continues to make progress in direction of affirmation and assist the earliest possible launch date,” NASA said in its full finances request.

NASA’s finances paperwork additionally warned that prices will proceed to develop. The 2024 request made no adjustments to future “outyears” projections from final 12 months’s proposal, projecting spending $700 million in fiscal 12 months 2025, $600 million in 2026 and $612.1 million in 2027. The brand new finances proposal additionally projected spending $627.6 million in 2028.

“Mars Pattern Return prices are anticipated to extend past what’s proven within the outyear profile on this finances,” NASA said within the proposal. “To handle this finances problem, NASA must both scale back funding for different actions throughout the Science Program or descope parts of the Mars Pattern Return mission.” That might embody eradicating one of many two pattern retrieval helicopters added to the MSR mission idea final 12 months, the doc famous.

Throughout a March 13 briefing in regards to the finances proposal, NASA officers offered few particulars about what’s driving these elevated prices. Nicola Fox, the brand new affiliate administrator for science, mentioned the company was working by means of a collection of preliminary design opinions (PDRs) for MSR this 12 months earlier than formally confirming the mission.

Company officers additionally mentioned little about price progress throughout a city corridor assembly about MSR on the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Convention March 16. Jeff Gramling, MSR director at NASA Headquarters, mentioned he anticipated the collection of PDRs of parts of the general marketing campaign to conclude with a system-level PDR in September. That will be adopted by a affirmation overview as quickly as October.

That overview, recognized in company parlance as Key Determination Level C, can also be the place NASA units formal price and schedule commitments for applications. NASA has not provided an official price estimate but for MSR and, requested through the city corridor assembly for a “ballpark” estimate, Gramling declined to offer one.

“I don’t suppose I’m ready proper now to offer you price knowledge as a result of we’re nonetheless working it by means of our processes,” he mentioned. That effort contains “grassroots” price estimates coming by means of the varied opinions in addition to a separate unbiased overview deliberate earlier than the system-level PDR.

Nonetheless, the rising price of Mars Pattern Return is affecting different company science applications. NASA cited the prices of MSR, in addition to the personnel and different sources required for it, as a reason for delaying the VERITAS Venus mission last fall, putting the future of that mission in jeopardy.

These results transcend NASA’s planetary applications. Within the fiscal 12 months 2024 finances proposal, NASA mentioned it seeks to droop work on a serious heliophysics mission, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC). That mission, a advice of the 2013 heliophysics decadal survey, would fly a set of six spacecraft that may examine the interplay of the higher environment with the magnetosphere and the solar.

NASA had already chosen devices for the mission by means of a contest and solicited proposals for the six spacecraft. These proposals had been due Feb. 10, with NASA anticipated to make an award in October to assist a launch no later than 2029.

“The Finances proposes to pause GDC growth, as persevering with growth would have required a major improve in funding at a time when different house science missions, such because the Mars Pattern Return mission, even have excessive budgetary necessities,” NASA mentioned in its finances paperwork. NASA is in search of solely $10 million for the mission, in comparison with the $49.4 million anticipated for GDC in 2024 from final 12 months’s finances proposal. The 2024 request retains GDC funding at $10 million in 2025 and 2026, then zeroes it out.

The delay of GDC is a significant factor in an general discount in heliophysics within the finances, from $805 million it obtained in 2023 to a request of $750.9 million in 2024. That may very well be a problem within the Senate, the place the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA is chaired by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), whose dwelling state is concerned in lots of heliophysics missions.

“It isn’t sensible to do issues like reduce the factor that you just suppose is the chair’s highest precedence,” mentioned Jean Toal Eisen, vice chairman of company technique on the Affiliation of Universities for Analysis in Astronomy and a former Senate appropriations staffer, throughout a March 16 webinar by the Aerospace Industries Affiliation. “They’re simply going to place that again in and take the cash from one thing that you just cared about.”

The warnings within the finances proposal for price will increase in MSR “isn’t a terrific place to be,” mentioned Casey Dreier, chief of house coverage at The Planetary Society, on the similar webinar. It will increase the chance, he mentioned, of the pattern retrieval lander lacking its 2028 launch window. “It’s going to be a troublesome appropriations course of to get the cash it wants now to maintain on that schedule.”

The planetary science decadal survey printed in April 2022 endorsed continued work on Mars Pattern Return. Nonetheless, it really helpful that if prices elevated at the very least 20% above a projection of $5.3 billion that report adopted, or if prices in any 12 months exceeded 35% of NASA’s general planetary science finances, the company ought to ask the White Home and Congress for extra funding to make sure MSR doesn’t “undermine the long-term programmatic steadiness of the planetary portfolio.”

Utilizing the projections within the NASA finances proposal and going again to when MSR grew to become a standalone program in fiscal 12 months 2021, the company initiatives spending at the very least $5.2 billion on MSR by means of 2028, a complete that may develop from each anticipated price will increase by means of 2028 and spending wanted for MSR after 2028 by means of the deliberate return of samples in 2033.

“I believe it’s a comparatively brittle finances,” Dreier mentioned of the general NASA finances proposal. “If any one among these applications, or Artemis itself, actually goes astray when it comes to blowing its schedule or finances, you’re going to see some severe downstream penalties throughout the company.”


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