American space agency NASA is proceeding on its agenda of collecting samples of rocks from the red planet Mars. The agency already has robots like Curiosity and InSight on the planet but they are programmed to carry out specific jobs. The former is there since 2012 and the latter since November 2018. These are for exploring the terrain above the ground or beneath the crust. NASA now has its eyes on bringing back rock samples for detailed study to learn more about the natural resources on the red planet. It will be working with the European Space Agency ESA. The broad plan is for a rover-orbiter combination.

NASA will provide the rover and be responsible for the sample collection system while ESA will provide the orbiter. A section of the planetary Science community is worried about the enormous cost involved and the effect it would have on other projects. An Independent Review Board IRB has broadly endorsed continuing with Phase-A of the MSR program. The IRB assessed the status and feasibility of the proposed mission before endorsing the program.

Space News says NASA already announced its approval for Phase A of the development of the program. It has initiated activities on preliminary designs of the mission and key technologies that would be involved. The broad action plan envisages the launch of the lander and orbiter in 2026. Once samples are collected, they would be stored and brought back to Earth in 2031.

In the opinion of experts, the scientific value of the MSR program would be extraordinarily high.

Questions raised on the cost implications for NASA

NASA and ESA have the expertise necessary to undertake such projects. However, the independent review raised questions on the cost implications and the schedule for MSR. NASA plans for the launch of the lander and orbiter in 2026 but the IRB suggests the launch of the lander in 2028 and of the orbiter in either 2027 or 2028.

NASA is already on the job of inducting astronauts for the Artemis mission to the Moon and Mars. The mission would have to rely on a combination of modern-day technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and renewable energy. Space News goes on to add that the IRB feels the cost estimates projected by NASA need review. The space agency estimates $2.9–3.3 billion for those phases of MSR, but IRB feels $3.8–4.4 billion would be more realistic.

The estimates are independent of Mars 2020. Incidentally, Elon Musk is upbeat about SpaceX and missions to the Moon and Mars.

NASA Mars sample collection mission

According to Financial Express, the next big thing in space research is to analyze Martian rocks and soil. Therefore, NASA and ESA have teamed up on the Mars sample collection mission. The authorities have granted approval and work will move to the next stage. The initial task is to identify critical technologies, take critical design decisions, and assess the industry partnerships. It would be a decade long program aimed at examining rocks and soil of Mars to find out evidence of lifeforms on the planet. The colonization of Mars is also on the cards of NASA.

Mars 2020 Perseverance of NASA already launched

The sample collection mission took off in July this year when NASA launched the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover into space. Financial Express says this rover would land on the distant planet in February next year. Its purpose would be to uncover signs of microbial life that might have once existed there. Perseverance is a car-sized rover equipped with a robotic arm to facilitate drilling operation. Using that, the rover would collect samples from Mars. NASA and ESA are partners in this mission and scientists would study the samples once they are brought to Earth. The Mars sample collection mission is similar to that of lunar samples decades ago and one of the main purposes is to identify material that could be useful to humans.

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