NASA Reveals Europa Clipper Cost Growth and Mars Sample Return Reschedule –


NASA revealed significant changes to two of its flagship planetary science missions during today’s Space Science Week meeting at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. The cost of Europa Clipper, which will collect data as it performs multiple oscillations of Jupiter’s moon Europa, has risen from $4.25 billion to $5 billion. Separately, NASA and ESA are rescheduling the Mars Sample Return mission. Two landers are needed instead of one to retrieve samples from the surface of Mars and propel them into orbit for their return to Earth. The launches will take place in 2028 instead of 2026.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, told members of the Board for Space Studies and the Board for Aeronautics and Space Engineering that Europa Clipper remains on track for launch in 2024 after having successfully passed Key Decision Point-D (KDP-D) in March. This marks the transition from Phase C, final design and manufacturing, to Phase D, assembly, integration and testing, and launch. It is followed by phase E, operations and sustainment.

Artist’s impression of Europa Clipper flying over Europa, with Jupiter in the background. Credit: NASA

Many planetary scientists believe a liquid ocean exists beneath Europa’s icy surface with plumes spewing through cracks in the ice into space. The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter and repeatedly pass Europa close enough to sample plumes and make detailed surface studies.

Where there is water, there is a chance that life could exist. Former Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is convinced there is life on Europa and has made it his mission to force NASA to send both an orbiter and a lander there to investigate. NASA had no plan or budget to execute such a mission, but as chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA during the 114th and 115th Congresses, Culberson was able to add money year after year and lead NASA, in the text of the law not only report language, to do so. He often said that the Europa missions were the only ones where NASA would break the law if it didn’t comply.

NASA complies on the orbiter, but not yet on the lander, arguing that it needs data from the first mission before designing the second. Culberson and his Senate counterparts also wrote into the law that the spacecraft had to be launched on the Space Launch System even though a commercial alternative would be significantly cheaper. The White House Office of Management and Budget insisted that using a commercial launcher would save more than $1.5 billion. Congress eventually relented not because of cost, but hardware compatibility issues, and Clipper will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

The mission is still very expensive. Zurbuchen said today “we’ve changed the agency’s base commitment from $4.25 billion to $5 billion” and “make no mistake, we’re far from out of the woods on this one for now”. Integration and testing is where things usually get really, really difficult.

Presentation by Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA at Space Science Week, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, March 21, 2022.

About $100 million of the increase is for additional reserves in phase D, and he also mentioned about $100 million due to COVID, but the bulk is in phase E to have a career pipeline program and talents recognizing the long duration of the mission. “I have no joy in telling you that we need more money for phase E” but “if I had to choose ‘which phase to add money for’ it would be phase E because it is where we do science”.

Zurbuchen also shared information about the Mars Sample Return mission which will surely increase its cost, but he did not specify by how much.

NASA and ESA are partners in the multi-spacecraft mission to bring samples from Mars back to Earth for analysis. NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover is already on Mars collecting samples which it leaves on the surface in cigar-shaped tubes. A Sample Fetch Rover will be sent to pick them up and take them to a Mars Ascent Vehicle – a rocket – which will propel them into Mars orbit where they will be transferred to an Earth Return Orbiter for the return trip to Earth.

Initially, the plan was for the recovery rover and the ascent vehicle to launch together in 2026, and the Earth Return Orbiter in 2027. But Zurbuchen decided to convene an independent review panel in 2020 to get an unbiased assessment of the plan by outside experts. The Board warned that 2026 was “not achievable” with 2028 a more realistic date, and that the “timing and cost of the program is not aligned with its scope”.

Consequently, NASA has now rescheduled the mission with two landers – one for the recovery rover and the ascent vehicle – instead of one. The two landers will be launched in 2028. The Earth Return Orbiter will be launched again in 2027. The samples will return to Earth in 2033.

Presentation by Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA at Space Science Week, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, March 21, 2022.
Presentation by Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA at Space Science Week, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, March 21, 2022.

The program is still in its early stages with the KDP-B exam scheduled for June. This will mark the transition from Phase A, concept and technology development, to Phase B, preliminary design and technology completion.

NASA and ESA signed a memorandum of understanding to work together on Mars Sample Return in October 2020. NASA built the Perseverance rover, the first mission of this campaign. ESA builds the fetch rover and the Earth Return Orbiter. NASA is building the ascent vehicle, as well as the sample capture mechanism and Earth reentry capsule for the Earth Return Orbiter.

Separate from the Mars Sample Return mission, ESA planned to launch a Mars rover, ExoMars 2022, in partnership with Russia in September. He canceled those plans after Russia invaded Ukraine and is now looking for alternatives to get his rover to Mars. It is not known if this will have an impact on the planning for the return of the samples from Mars.

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