This Week in Space

Apr 19th 2024

This Week in Space 107

Mars Sample Return Blues

Hosted by Rod Pyle, Tariq Malik

Setbacks, Innovations, and the Search for Life With Leonard David

New episodes posted every Friday.
Guests: Leonard David
Category: News

Unless you've been living under a big red Martian rock, you've likely heard that NASA's Mars Sample Return mission is in trouble. The robotic program has its roots in the 1960s, when NASA started thinking about sending robots to fetch Mars soil even before Mariner 4's first flyby of the planet. The Russians pondered it as well, as the Chinese and Japanese are today. The problem? It's really hard, with multiple spacecraft, possibly on different launches, rendezvousing around the Red Planet to accomplish. And then there are the concerns about the safety of returning possible pathogens to Earth (that said, I could use an extra tentacle). But the showstopper, as usual, is cost—and NASA's not happy. We invited the original Space Ace reporter, Leonard David, to join the discussion.


  • NASA gives green light to Dragonfly, a nuclear-powered helicopter mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, set to launch in 2028 and arrive in 2034
  • New images from the Perseverance rover reveal the crash site of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, showing scattered debris and broken rotor blades
  • NASA continues to study the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield, which experienced more erosion than expected during the Artemis 1 mission, raising concerns for future crewed missions

Main Topic: Mars Sample Return Mission

  • Leonard David expresses frustration with NASA’s recent announcement of significant cost increases and delays for the Mars Sample Return mission
  • NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stated that the current estimated cost of $11 billion is too high and called for innovative ideas from industry and academia to reduce costs and accelerate the timeline
  • They discuss the scientific importance of returning Martian samples to Earth but question whether the current approach is the most effective way to search for life on Mars
  • Leonard suggests that advancements in miniaturized instruments could allow for more comprehensive life detection experiments directly on the Martian surface, reducing the need for sample return
  • The conversation touches on the potential for international collaboration and competition in Mars exploration, with China, Japan, and Russia planning their own missions
  • Rod highlights the critical role of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Mars exploration and expresses concern about the potential loss of expertise if the MSR mission is scaled back or cancelled
  • The TWiS crew concludes by emphasizing the need for a clear, sustainable strategy for Mars exploration that balances scientific objectives, technological capabilities, and budgetary realities

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