While neither European Space Agency nor the NASA has yet to present funding or formal approval, for missions to return samples from the Red Planet, both agencies are taking steps to refine plans for what those missions will be.
Those plans mentioned at a Mars science convention and working group assembly last week would contain two launches in 2026 to send a spaceship to fetch samples collected by NASA’s Red Planet 2020 rover and return them to Earth in 2031.
ESA and NASA officials signed a statement of intent in April 2018 to study cooperation on a series, or “campaign,” of Mars sample return missions that follow a “lean” pattern return architecture introduced by NASA in August 2017. Under the proposed cooperation, NASA would provide a Mars lander mission, with a European-built rover, that may grab the samples collected by Mars 2020 and place them right into a Mars ascent vehicle, a small rocket that will launch them into Mars orbit. An Earth return orbiter, constructed by ESA, would collect the sample container and return it to Earth.
That is still the overall plan, Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, stated in a July 26 presentation at a meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) in Pasadena, California. “We need to pull this plan together and present it to the decision authorities for a decision by the top of the 2019 timeframe,” he stated.
The plan because it currently exists, and as he offered on the MEPAG assembly, calls for two launches in 2026. The primary, in the summer, can be the NASA lander, adopted within the fall by the ESA orbiter. Both would take non-standard trajectories to get to Mars, with the orbiter getting there in a few years with the help of solar electric propulsion, while the lander would take two years to get to Mars.