NASA SBIR Program Funds Mars Sample Return Technologies

NASA faces a number of technical challenges to overcome for is Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission. One can get a good sense of what those obstacles are by looking at the Small Business Innovative Research projects that the agency selected to fund earlier this month.

Below are summaries of the projects that were selected. They are broken down into key phases of the mission: aerocapture, entry, descent and landing; sample collection and surface operations; planetary ascent; and orbital rendezvous with the return vehicle.

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NRC Report Recommends Strict Quarantine on Mars Samples

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The National Research Council has released a report calling for the strictest of quarantine procedures relating to any soil and rock samples returned from Mars.

The Assessment of Planetary Protection Requirements for Mars Sample Return Missions report recommends that “samples returned from Mars by spacecraft should be contained and treated as though potentially hazardous until proven otherwise.”

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iMARS Working Group Issues Mission Design Report on Sample Return


Credit: ESA

ESA News Release

The first robotic mission to return samples to Earth from Mars took a further step toward realisation with the recent publication of a mission design report by the iMARS Working Group. The report, defines key elements of the future internationally-funded mission involving the cooperation of ESA, NASA and other national agencies.

iMARS, which stands for the International Mars Architecture for the Return of Samples is a committee of the International Mars Exploration Working Group made up of scientists, engineers, strategic planners, and managers. The report, which comes after months of deliberation, outlines the scientific and engineering requirements of such an international mission to be undertaken in the timeframe 2020-2022.

The Mars Sample Return mission is an essential step with respect to future exploration goals and the prospect of establishing a future human mission to Mars. Returned samples will increase the knowledge of the properties of Martian soil and contribute significantly to answering questions about the possibility of life on the Red Planet. This mission will improve our understanding of the Mars environment to support planning for the future human exploration.

Revived Interest in Mars Sample Return Mission

The Planetary Society’s Lou Friedman has an interesting post on the status of efforts by NASA and ESA to mount a Mars sample return (MSR) mission.

Friedman reports that although there is much interest in the idea, cost estimates keep growing because of the complexity of the effort. He reaches the following conclusions:

  1. There will never be enough money in the science budget for NASA to do a Mars Sample Return mission alone;
  2. The MSR mission will require international cooperation: technically, politically, and economically;
  3. MSR is not a single mission — it is multiple missions, or in NASA-speak, a program.