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

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

The effort comes at a time when China is making progress on 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 that feat.

"The conclusion is that $11 billion is too much, and returning samples only in 2040 is unacceptably long," U.S. space agency head Bill Nelson said in a phone call with reporters.

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

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

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

Outside experts also found that the total cost could rise to $11 billion, nearly double what NASA has said.

As a result, NASA plans to solicit new proposals from the aerospace industry that would lower some of the mission's ambitions.

"To get things done faster, we may have to reduce the scope of the number of samples," NASA's Nikki Fox told reporters, without specifying what the new number would be.

Nelson said the agency has also been forced to deal with budget constraints imposed by Congress that have led NASA to ask for more than $2 billion less than it had hoped for 2025 as a result of the debt ceiling agreement reached last year.

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

Although the Chinese mission is simpler and will only take samples from the immediate vicinity of the landing site, being the first to return 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 the NASA-led Artemis 3 landing.

"If they manage to bring back samples from Mars before the U.S., even if it's a grab sample that's almost useless from a scientific standpoint, it's much more like the Sputnik moment," G. H. R. Roth told AFP recently. Scott Hubbard, a former senior NASA official and Stanford professor, pointing out that it would be a wake-up call for Western countries. / BGNES