This Week in Space

May 24th 2024

This Week in Space 112

Mars on Pause?

Hosted by Rod Pyle, Tariq Malik

With JPL Chief Engineer Emeritus Rob Manning

New episodes posted every Friday.
Guests: Rob Manning
Category: News

This week we've invited JPL's Chief Engineer Emeritus, Rob Manning, back to discuss Mars exploration and, in particular, Mars Sample Return. As we discussed in episode 107, that project is in a bit of trouble. Rob was the Chief Engineer of every Mars rover up through Perseverance and the overall Chief Engineer on Perseverance, and he has some unique insights on how we have explored Mars, why it matters, and what the future holds... especially with regard to returning samples to Earth. Join us!


  • NASA held a press conference to explain the latest delays with Boeing's Starliner spacecraft, which stem from issues with a helium leak and concerns about the reaction control thrusters that could lead to a loss of redundancy during reentry
  • The European Space Agency's Euclid Space Telescope returned its first science images, providing stunning new views of galaxies never seen in such detail before to help unlock the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy

Main Topic - Mars Exploration and Sample Return:

  • Rob Manning recounts his extensive experience with Mars exploration at JPL, from the Sojourner rover and Pathfinder lander in the 90s to the currently operating Curiosity and Perseverance rovers
  • Curiosity confirmed the past presence of water on Mars, while Perseverance is collecting carefully selected rock samples to eventually be returned to Earth
  • The Mars Sample Return mission would bring pristine samples back to Earth for in-depth study, but is an extremely complex and costly endeavor facing budget challenges and potential delays
  • Rob explains why returning samples is so critical - context is key and current meteorite samples have been altered by their journey to Earth, whereas carefully selected samples could reveal much more about Mars' history and potential for life
  • Challenges for Mars Sample Return include the large size of the lander, the need for new parachute and guidance technologies, and planetary protection requirements to prevent contaminating Earth
  • NASA currently has no plans for additional Mars missions beyond sample return, and faces a potential loss of institutional knowledge as a "quiet period" approaches, highlighting the need to maintain momentum in Mars exploration

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