“You could probably just roll Perseverance into Starship and fly back to Earth.”

Knight in Stainless Armor

NASA’s highly ambitious Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission is on thin ice.

An independent review board balked last year at the Mars Sample Return mission’s “unrealistic” budget, highly complex mission design, and glaring management failures.

Earlier this year, budget cuts forced the agency’s Jet Propulsion Lab to let go of a whopping 530 employees, with NASA leaders racing to keep the MSR mission from imploding completely.

The space agency announced this week that it would solicit proposals from the private space industry for “innovative designs” to return Martian samples collected and bagged by its Perseverance rover over the last couple of years.

And, as Scientific American reports, SpaceX’s mammoth Starship spacecraft may just fit the bill.

“Starship has the potential to return serious tonnage from Mars within [around] five years,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested in a tweet earlier this week, responding to the announcement.

Interplanetary Road Trip

Planetary Society senior space policy adviser Casey Dreier told SA that SpaceX’s super-heavy Starship launch system could be the perfect vehicle for the job, pointing out that NASA is already planning to use the rocket to get astronauts to the lunar surface for its Artemis program.

“It’s encouraging companies to use infrastructure built for Artemis,” he told SA. “The only conclusion you can really draw from that is they’re hoping Starship somehow is the solution here.”

“You could probably just roll Perseverance into Starship and fly back to Earth,” Dreier added.

Former NASA chief scientist Jim Green, who helped establish MSR at the agency, agreed that it could make sense to “leverage assets that we didn’t have” when the plan was first devised.

There are an astonishing number of moving parts when it comes to NASA’s current plan to return samples from the surface of Mars, an interplanetary Rube Goldberg machine that’s already required an astronomical amount of funding and years of planning.

Needless to say, a rocket that could both land and lift off from the Martian surface could help streamline the endeavor significantly.

While nobody really knows if Starship could ever be used to collect samples from the Red Planet — SpaceX has yet to even get it into space and back in one piece — it’s a glimmer of hope for an expensive mission with a spectacular potential scientific payoff.

“There are aspects of solar system evolution that can only be done through the return of samples [from Mars],” Brown University planetary scientist Jack Mustard told SA. “Having datable samples from another planetary body to address that question would be unbelievable.”

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