NASA is looking for a faster and cheaper way to deliver rocks from Mars to Earth

NASA said it is looking into ways to return Martian rocks collected by the Perseverance rover to Earth faster and at a lower cost than planned after being criticized for going significantly over budget.

The effort comes as China advances a simpler mission to return samples to the Red Planet "around 2030," according to state media, which would make it the first country to achieve the feat.

"The bottom line is that $11 billion is too much, and returning samples until 2040 is unacceptably long," said the head of the US space agency, Bill Nelson, in a telephone call with reporters.

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) planned to land a craft around Crater Lake, where the Perseverance rover spent years searching for traces of ancient microbial life that may have existed billions of years ago when Mars was warmer and wetter than today.

Thirty tubes of samples collected by the rover will be loaded onto a small rocket and launched into orbit, where another spacecraft will pick them up and bring them home.

But a recent audit of NASA's plans by an independent review board said the mission to return samples from Mars was set up "with unrealistic budget and time expectations from the start" and that there was "almost zero" chance of meeting the planned launch dates.

Outside experts also found that total costs could rise to $11 billion, nearly double what NASA had claimed.

As a result, NASA plans to solicit new proposals from the space industry to scale back some of the mission's ambitions.

"In order to do things faster, we may have to reduce the scope of the number of samples," NASA's Nicky Fox told reporters, without specifying what the new number would be.

Nelson said the agency was also forced to deal with budget constraints imposed by Congress, which left NASA asking for more than $2 billion less than it had hoped for in 2025 as a result of the cap deal. of the debt achieved last year.

China's Tianwen-3 Mars sample return mission is working on its launch around 2030, state media reported last month.

Although China's mission is simpler and will only sample from the immediate vicinity of the landing site, being the first to bring back rocks from another world would still be a huge geopolitical victory.

China could also be the next country to send a crew to the moon if its 2030 mission takes place before NASA's Artemis 3 lands.

"If they manage to get samples back from Mars before the US, even if it's a grab sample that's almost scientifically worthless, it's a lot more like the Sputnik moment," G. Scott Hubbard, a former senior NASA official and Stanford professor, saying it would be a wake-up call for Western nations. /BGNES