NASA's complicated future on Mars

While NASA considers the mission's potentially high cost, it is being seen as the apex of a decades-long drive to send robots to Mars.

Why it's important If rock samples from Mars are brought back to Earth for detailed examination by scientists, it may be possible to determine if Mars has ever been inhabited.

The space agency has despatched roughly 20 spacecraft to Mars since the 1960s to study the planet from space and gather data about it on the ground using rovers and landers.

The Mars Sample Return mission, a joint venture between NASA and the European Space Agency, is presently undergoing a thorough evaluation, according to the report.

According to a story published by Ars Technica last month, the mission's price may have gone up from $4 billion or $5 billion to $8 billion or $9 billion.

One estimate in the program evaluation was in that price range, NASA told Axios, but it cautioned that "all scenarios are highly speculative."

As part of the confirmation review process, NASA continued, "the agency aims to set its baseline cost and schedule commitment for the Mars Sample Return Program later this year."

According to John Logsdon, who founded the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, "it's more uncertain than I've seen with other big missions." According to him, the evaluation would "probably set the course for the rest of the mission."

Between the lines: Other missions are encountering technical delays and timetable issues, so if the sample return mission does come with a larger price tag, it may affect NASA's whole planetary scientific portfolio.

Recently, the VERITAS trip to Venus had to be put on hold indefinitely by the space agency since other projects had to take precedence.

After being postponed owing to software glitches last year, the Psyche mission to a metallic asteroid is now anticipated to launch in October.

Additionally, the price of the NEO Surveyor mission, which Congress designated as a high priority to discover deadly asteroids close to Earth, has climbed from around $600 million to $1.2 billion.

The intriguing part is that NASA has already made a significant investment in sample return through a previous mission, the Perseverance rover, which created the foundation for it.

NASA planned the construction of Perseverance with the intention of using it to store samples that would later be collected by a sample return mission and returned to Earth.

Several samples that could contain evidence of earlier life have already been gathered and stored by Perseverance, but analysis of those samples won't be possible until those samples are brought back to Earth.

The larger picture: Cost increases for significant NASA missions are nothing new. Before it was ever launched, the price of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope rose by billions of dollars, giving it the moniker "the telescope that ate astronomy."

However, the Mars Sample Return mission's scope is far more constrained than JWST's, which could make it less popular with the larger space research community.

According to Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society, "JWST is a platform for science for decades, and that makes the coalition behind it much more durable from a scientific perspective."

What to look for: In the future, congressional backing for the mission will probably be essential, especially if the operation's cost rises dramatically.

However, the mission budget is flexible, and it's likely NASA will make changes to the mission's design or construction to save costs.

The bottom line: Experts caution that the Mars Sample Return mission must go or it would essentially leave a task unfulfilled on Mars.

As the Perseverance rover produced these exquisite samples of the Martian surface, Dreier remarked, "there's something very sad to me about the image of these carefully, lovingly collected and curated precious samples just functionally rotting on the surface of another planet for all eternity."