But remotely feeling around the surface of a planet million of miles away has its limits. So for decades, explorers have dreamed of grabbing a piece of Mars for detailed study on Earth.
The agency has already paid out $46 million to contractors to build instruments for the 2016 launch. That mission would send a joint U.S.-European probe, the Trace Gas Orbiter, to sniff the Martian atmosphere. It would remain in place to beam signals back to Earth from a dirt-grabbing rover to be launched in 2018.
Haggard-faced and weary-eyed, an international team of six researchers climbed out of a set of claustrophobic windowless capsules where they spent 520 days on a mock mission to Mars. (Nov. 4)
NASA released a fast-paced video of Earth taken from the international space station. (Nov. 3)
The 2018 rover would gather samples chosen as most likely to show signs of current or past life on Mars, and stow them in canisters. A rocket sent on a subsequent mission would grab the canisters and launch them into Martian orbit, where yet another vehicle would fly them back to Earth.
This year, space scientists formally chose the Mars sample return campaign as their highest priority “flagship” mission. When setting priorities, NASA generally follows the advice of such “decadal surveys,” which represent a consensus of experts.
But at the October meeting, officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy cited the cost and duration of the plan — which would stretch beyond 2020 — as factors weighing against it, Britt said.
Mars scientists broke the retrieval campaign into four flights to spread out its costs. They then proposed the agreement with Europe to reduce NASA’s commitment, and reduced the payload from two rovers to one.
Despite this squeezing, the United States has already reneged on part of the agreement. In April, NASA said it could no longer afford the rocket to launch the 2016 mission. That move pushed the Europeans to seek a rocket from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
“It is unfortunate we have not been better partners . . . because of the budgetary situation we find ourselves in,” NASA’s Green said to agency science advisers on Oct. 31.
Privately, European Space Agency officials have expressed frustration, several sources said. Publicly, the agency is presenting a more patient face.
“We do not foresee NASA will withdraw completely from this important mission,” said Alvaro Giménez, director of science and robotic exploration for the European agency. “In every partnership, like in a marriage, there are ups and downs.”