NASA’s decision last week to fly a near-twin of the Curiosity rover
(above) in 2020 represents a dramatic change in policy back towards
doing a sample return mission. (credit: NASA/JPL)

The resurrection of Mars Sample Return

by Pat Nealon
Monday, December 10, 2012

There had been rumors for a couple of weeks that NASA would make a big announcement about Mars at one of the largest annual meetings of scientists, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco. The rumors were about the possibility that NASA’s Curiosity rover had discovered something very interesting on Mars. As it turned out, the Curiosity science results, although interesting, were not nearly up to the hype. But NASA did make a major announcement at AGU: NASA is taking the first step towards the ultimate scientific goal for the red planet, Mars Sample Return.

You can be forgiven if you missed it, because NASA was careful not to use the words “Mars Sample Return” in their press release. Instead, they announced that they are going to build another rover, based on the successful Curiosity design and using some spare parts manufactured for Curiosity, to be launched in 2020. In the official press release, NASA stated that the instrument suite is still to be determined. But make no mistake, this is the first step toward sample return, and in many ways represents a major reversal for the Obama Administration.

To understand what happened, you have to know the context. To establish its goals for scientific exploration of the solar system, NASA turns to the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies and a process known as a “decadal survey.” (There are “decadal surveys” in other scientific areas as well.) The decadal survey is essentially a group of selected volunteers who meet over approximately two years and hash out a list of science priorities for the planetary science program. They develop a list of science missions in the large “flagship” class and the medium “New Frontiers” class.

The decadal survey is based upon implicit trust between the scientific community and NASA. The volunteers agree to devote their time, and other members of the community participate by submitting white papers and attending town hall meetings, with the expectation that NASA will make a good faith effort to follow the recommendations in the decadal survey and not pursue other goals. The end result of the two years of data collection, open meetings and closed-door deliberations, as well as an extensive peer review, is a final report that nearly everybody considers to be a “community-wide consensus” about what to do in the field of planetary science. The decadal survey is also highly-respected outside of the scientific community. Congress, and until recently, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), treated the decadal survey as a sort of bible for the program, representing the collected wisdom of the planetary science community and an overall agreement on the goals for the planetary science program, and they too expected NASA to follow it.

Read more: The Space Review: The resurrection of Mars Sample Return.

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