back to article NASA: Mars rocks won't make it back to Earth until 2033

Martian rock samples collected by NASA's Perseverance rover won't arrive on Earth until 2033 – as they'll need an orbiter and lander sent out toward the end of the decade to fetch them, the US space agency said Wednesday. Launched in 2020, Perseverance has been roaming around on Mars and is right now at the Jezero crater …

  1. imanidiot Silver badge

    I await with great anticipation

    I'm a little sceptical of the choice to ditch the wheeled rover for 2 hover-bots but I'm sure the boys at NASA know more about it than I do. Making a helicopter capable of lifting a filled sample tube must however be another level of engineering challenge over one barely able to lift itself in the barely-there Mars atmosphere.

    1. Lon24 Silver badge

      The real question ..

      Dates have been known to slip on government space contracts, further delayed by consequent cost over-runs, 2033 could become 2133 if a certain aerospace company gets the contract. Or we just get bored and cancel (like the moon) plans to land (or almost land) on something already landed.

      So will our future boffins discover the fossilised remains of an ancient NASA lander embedded in the rocks? An intriguing glimpse of 21st century technology from a former rich and fertile planet that didn't look like Mars?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I await with great anticipation

      > a little sceptical of the choice to ditch the wheeled rover for 2 hover-bots

      As you said, it doesn't make much technical sense, but it is the obvious choice from an economic point of view, drones costing much less, not to mention being lighter and smaller (you have to transport them to Mars) and very trendy. Who cares if they can't lift those rock samples, the point is to be seen doing stuff.

      And by 2033 our staff in the streets will have collected enough coins to pay for the rocket.

      1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge
        FAIL

        Re: Who cares if they can't lift those rock samples, the point is to be seen doing stuff.

        No, the point of the MSR mission is entirely to lift those rock samples and get them home.

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "...the boys at NASA..."

      ...and the _____? Yes? Yes? Bueller?

      Correct.

      Thank you.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.

    Can't give enough upvotes for slipping that into the story.

    1. adam 40 Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.

      .. so they say.

    2. Little Mouse Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.

      Pints all round to the boffins if they configure the engines of the "Earth Return Orbiter" to burn with a green flare when it sets off on its Mars -> Earth journey.

      1. Lon24 Silver badge

        Re: The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one.

        You aren't suggesting 'six wheels bad, three legs good' by any chance?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Two helicopters? I assume this is due to the same power to weight ratios that apply to (European) swallows carrying coconuts.

  4. iron Silver badge

    Meanwhile, China will steal the samples from Percy and return them in 2028 leaving NASA looking very embarassed.

    1. Sceptic Tank
      Trollface

      They will first have to steal the designs.

    2. Vulch

      Followed by Elon in 2030 saying "I've got 20 tonnes of samples here, where would you like them?"

  5. GDM

    I do wonder, in an uneducated way, if it wouldn't be better to build in some flexibility to return the samples to either some successor to the ISS, or moon base if the timescales for this slip more than that, rather than returning directly to earth. But I've probably read/seen too much sci-fi where doing that sort of thing goes horribly wrong.

    1. TVU

      It is little known but the Soviet Union was able to directly acquire Moon rock samples from its Luna 16 (and later Luna 20 and 24) landing and return probes. I wish that something similar had been done here although the mission costs would have been greater.

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        The reason for all the separate vehicles with the separate ascend, return and reentry vehicles has to do with containment procedures. Given the tiniest of slim chances there IS life on Mars, they want to be absolutely certain the outside of the reentry vehicle is clean and does not have any particles from the surface on it. Thats why the ascend stage puts the sample tubes into the return stage on-orbit and is then discarded. That way anything thats been in contact with the surface is either contained inside the reentry vehicle or stays on or near mars.

      2. MachDiamond Silver badge

        The idea is to be able to have samples from more than on discreet location given the costs of doing a Mars mission. For the moon, it's not nearly as expensive to have a lander collect a sample from a spot in the immediate area and bring it back.

        It's good to have multiple samples so you don't wind up with one anomalous sample. The current system on Mars is very complex. It may have been better to make a very simple rover that followed behind with a dust pan and brush to collect up the leavings from the bigger rover. Since the bigger rover would be breaking trail, the collection bot navigation would be much easier. Once all of the vials were collected, the baby rover could make its way directly back to the return craft.

    2. Vulch

      Costs too much in fuel. Coming straight in can use the atmosphere to slow down, Earth orbit means they'd need to take the fuel for that to Mars and back.

    3. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Heat shields are lighter than rockets

      To come back from Mars, the up hill journey to an orbit that comes close to Earth requires a rocket. Once on the way, the returning vehicle is going downhill (closer to the sun), so picks up speed. Getting close to Earth (or the Moon) is a steep downhill journey so the vehicle picks up even more speed. Matching velocity with ISS or the Moon would require a really big rocket (that you would have to send to Mars with a much bigger rocket). Matching velocity with Earth requires a heat shield that is much lighter than the Moon/ISS rocket so it is far cheaper to send to Mars orbit.

      It is possible to use a heat shield near Earth to slow down enough to enter orbit instead of landing. Next use a rocket to get to ISS or the Moon. That gets you a big saving because this rocket does not have to be sent from Earth to Mars and back. It only has to go from Earth to Earth orbit, match velocity with the return vehicle then go to the Moon or ISS. Then you need tiny rocket and a heat shield to go to Earth where all the equipment to study the samples is. Round about this point you should see the value in scrapping this plan and going straight to Earth's surface without taking a detour to the Moon or ISS (which will not be functional in 2033).

  6. RichardBarrell

    Seems pretty normal to me

    In Kerbal Space Program, I too pretty often do the whole sample collection phase of the mission before starting the design & launch of the retrieval phase.

    1. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Seems pretty normal to me

      It's a funding thing. NASA didn't have the budget to design build and launch both the mars 2020 rover (Perseverance) AND the hardware for the sample return mission. By splitting it up they can now do both, but it was touch and go for a while wether or not they were going to get the budget allocation for the sample return mission as currently designed. The advantage of the chosen approach is that with the samples collected, if they didn't get the budget now, at least the samples are there and ready to go of they got the budget later.

      1. RichardBarrell

        Re: Seems pretty normal to me

        That makes sense. Another thing is that the sample return mission is much more tempting now - "look, the samples are already there and collected".

  7. Number6

    A shame they are ditching the rovers, it was an interesting challenge to build a self-navigating robot to go find and collect samples and return them to the base station. NASA crowdfunded it a few years ago. It's a lot more challenging than one might think.

    https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/centennial_challenges/sample_return_robot/index.html

  8. StrangerHereMyself Bronze badge

    Beaten by China

    The Chinese will most likely succeed in getting back Martian rocks before that date, maybe as early as 2030.

    In my opinion this is a huge setback and one over which heads should roll.

    1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
      Meh

      Re: Beaten by China

      [citation needed]

      In particular, please cite the number of successful missions to Mars by the Chinese.

      1. TVU

        Re: Beaten by China

        "In particular, please cite the number of successful missions to Mars by the Chinese."

        Well, their Tianwen-1 orbiter has now successfully mapped the whole of Mars and the Zhurong rover is actively exploring the surface of Mars. That is way better than anything that the Soviets ever achieved on Mars.

        Indeed, when it comes to space exploration, China is the new Soviet Union competitor to the United States while the rabid mad dog Putin is running Russia into the ground.

      2. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Beaten by China

        China's space program doesn't get much coverage but they are going very quickly towards having a fully kitted out space station and there are plans for a moon base. They have assets at Mars and the first rover on the back side of the moon. China has avoided entangling multi-national programs so they can spend their money on their own missions. The Chinese government isn't subject to the same public input as Western democracies so they have no need to maintain an active PR campaign for their space programs to garner public support and approval.

  9. Gene Cash Silver badge
    FAIL

    Unnecessary complexity

    So the faffing about with an extra rover (now two helicopters) would have been unnecessary if Perseverance just had a damn rack for the filled samples.

    There would then be no need to go back and fetch them. It could just trundle up to the sample return lander and hand them off.

    Damn it, do I have to plan ALL the Mars missions?? Don't make me come out there!

    Seriously, though... why??

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Unnecessary complexity

      >So the faffing about with an extra rover (now two helicopters) would have been unnecessary if Perseverance just had a damn rack for the filled samples.<

      That would be one way to go. It's hard to say why that would have been eliminated as an option. One could imagine that if the rover had a serious fault, there might not be an easy way to access that rack by another rover later on. Picking up a loose vial on the surface insures that the samples are retrievable no matter what happens to the rover that collected them.

      Mission planning takes years and years and the trip to Mars another 9 months. If a collection rover is designed and built but before it can even be launched, the rover at Mars rolls over and can't right itself, a whole new collection rover would have to be designed and built to first flip the rover over and then be able to get the rack. It would be nice to see a book published that went over the scenarios that went into the mission and how the risks were rated. I love to learn about that sort of thing as it wasn't really taught in any of my engineering classes when I was at Uni. I also didn't get any engineering history which I find very fascinating as well.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Boffin

      Re: Unnecessary complexity

      If Perseverance carries the samples then if it fails you need something that can get to where it is to retrieve them. Worse: if it gets stuck somewhere where it is clear other rovers will also become stuck then samples are effectively lost.

      If none of this happens you are merely left with requirement that Perseverance must both be able to return to wherever the sample return vehicle lands, and be able to unload samples. Both of these, particularly first one, will limit what you can do with Perseverance mission, which is undesirable.

  10. Onga

    With any luck, the Earth will still be capable at that point of hosting complex life forms, like scientists.

    Chilling and depressing. Happy Friday everyone!

  11. EricB123 Bronze badge

    What's the Rush?

    Strange, I had the impression Elon would have luxury condos on Mars in a few years.

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