Key Takeaways:

  1. The projected costs for NASA and ESA’s Mars sample-return mission have surged to US$8-11 billion, exceeding earlier estimates by a significant margin.
  2. Launching the missions in 2027 and 2028 appears highly improbable, with a potential postponement to 2030 necessitating a similar budget, posing substantial challenges.
  3. Despite obstacles, the mission remains strategically vital for showcasing US and European ‘soft power’ and advancing scientific exploration beyond Earth.
  4. Retrieving Martian rocks for analysis in terrestrial laboratories is crucial for scrutinizing potential ‘biosignatures’ and unraveling the mysteries of extraterrestrial life.
  5. Balancing the costs of Mars sample return against other planetary missions within NASA’s budget presents a formidable task, requiring collaborative efforts with Congress to secure adequate funding and financial planning.

Humanity’s grandest and most daring initiative to seek out alien life is poised for a major rethink.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have been collaborating on a plan to transport a selection of Martian rocks, meticulously gathered by the Perseverance rover, back to Earth for examination. However, a recent independent evaluation of the proposal indicates that it is unfeasible within current budgetary and scheduling constraints. The projected expenses for the entire endeavour are now estimated to range from US$8 billion to $11 billion — a substantial increase compared to the approximately $4 billion projected in a prior independent review issued three years ago. Moreover, the likelihood of launching the missions in 2027 and 2028, as originally anticipated by the space agencies, is now deemed “near zero.” Even if the launch dates were deferred to 2030, the estimated cost would still hover between US$8 billion and $9.6 billion, placing it on par with the expenditure for the construction of the James Webb Space Telescope, the most costly astronomy endeavour in history.

The evaluation underscores the strategic significance of a Mars sample return mission for the space agencies, as it would showcase US and European ‘soft power’ at a juncture when China has also unveiled intentions to retrieve rocks from Mars. Additionally, from a scientific perspective, the mission holds immense importance as it marks the culmination of a protracted quest to explore life beyond our planet. Nevertheless, as per the report, the current blueprint is unworkable. The report, spearheaded by former NASA manager Orlando Figueroa and commissioned by NASA, prompts a reevaluation of the plans.

NASA has announced a suspension of current plans and commits to devising an alternate strategy by early this year. Lori Glaze, head of NASA’s planetary-science division in Washington DC, acknowledges that implementing the recommendations from the report will require substantial deliberation. She affirms, “It’s going to take a little time for us to assess the path forward.”

ESA, in a statement, expresses its commitment to reassessing its plan to align with the overarching mission objectives. “We are conducting preliminary studies to assess all options given the various scenarios and will inform member states and coordinate with NASA on the outcome as soon as possible,” the statement reads.


The envisaged Mars sample-return mission entails NASA constructing a lander tasked with retrieving up to 30 rock samples from the Red Planet, alongside a rocket designated to propel them into Martian orbit. ESA, on the other hand, would be responsible for crafting the spacecraft tasked with retrieving the invaluable cargo from orbit and ferrying it back to Earth.

The capacity to analyse the rocks in terrestrial laboratories far surpasses the capabilities of the compact instruments available on robotic rovers. This analysis would involve scouring for ‘biosignatures’ — molecules or other indicators of past life within the samples. “These measurements are difficult to do remotely,” explains Daniel Glavin, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “You really want the samples back and in the lab.”

NASA’s Perseverance rover has already amassed a trove of samples from Mars’s Jezero Crater and has even deployed ten sealed tubes, containing rock cores, on the surface for potential retrieval. The rover continues its exploration of Jezero, augmenting its collection with each passing day, rendering the existing cache increasingly invaluable. The rocks collected thus far originate from an ancient river delta and lake, environments that likely resembled habitable conditions on Earth.


Mars sample return featured prominently among the highest-priority recommendations for NASA in the last two planetary ‘decadal’ surveys — comprehensive reports that aim to steer the trajectory of US planetary science over the ensuing decade. However, the project has grappled with cost escalation as engineers refined the designs for the mission’s various spacecraft. The earlier independent review, commissioned by NASA from external experts to preempt unexpected cost escalations, proposed a budget ranging from $3.8 billion to $4.4 billion for the sample-return endeavour.

However, according to Glaze, this estimation predates a comprehensive understanding of the project’s scope and hence its associated costs. Moreover, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, which would spearhead much of the Mars sample-return project, has encountered challenges stemming from an overburdened workforce. This compelled NASA to postpone last year’s scheduled launch of a separate mission — a spacecraft destined for the asteroid Psyche.

Additionally, there exist deliberations regarding how to reconcile the costs of Mars sample return with other missions within NASA’s planetary-science division’s $3.2-billion budget. The most recent decadal survey, released in 2022, advocated for limiting the expenditure on Mars sample return to no more than 35% of the division’s overall budget. This poses a significant challenge as the agency endeavors to sustain funding for other priority projects, such as the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan scheduled for later this decade, and a subsequent mission to Uranus in the following decade.

Consequently, the focus remains on identifying the financial resources necessary for Mars sample return. Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and a key figure in the most recent decadal survey, underscores the importance of collaboration between NASA and Congress to secure the requisite funding and delineate an appropriate financial strategy for the successful execution of Mars sample return.

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