NASA Seeks Public Comment on Mars Sample Return Mission

…But don’t overdo it, please.

NASA is seeking public comment on a draft environmental impact statement for the Mars Sample Return mission. Comments can be submitted online, through the mail, or at one of a series of virtual and in-person meetings.

WebEx will host the virtual meetings on November 30 at 1pm and 6pm MST. Attendees can log in 15 minutes before the meetings are scheduled to begin. The meetings will also include automated closed captioning.

(Personally, I expect the automated closed captioning to have errors. The discussions at NASA’s live events tend to be highly technical, which automated captioning doesn’t necessarily handle well.)

The public meetings will include presentations on the purpose of the meetings and information about the Mars Sample Return mission. It will also include a discussion of potential environmental impact and how the mission complies with the National Environmental Policy Act. The agenda includes a 45-minute open house during which experts can answer attendees’ questions and time for public comment.

While NASA hasn’t set any guidelines for public comment, time is likely to be limited for the public comment phase of the virtual meetings. Keeping comments relevant to the matter at hand is likely to be appreciated. They won’t have time to listen to Flat Earthers, Moon Landing Hoaxers, or people who think the money would be better spent on their pet causes, especially during the 1pm meeting.

Comments can also be sent through a portal on Comments are due by December 19.

NASA is collaborating with the European Space Agency (ESA) on the sample return mission, which will bring back samples cached by the Perseverance rover. Mission planners say Perseverance will cache seven of the samples in a relatively flat area called Three Forks. This area will be easy for “helicopters” similar to Ingenuity to reach. Ingenuity became the first powered flying machine to fly on Mars soon after landing on the Red Planet with the Perseverance rover.

NASA and ESA plan to launch two separate components of the sample return mission, a lander and an orbiter. They will launch as early as 2027 and 2028. The sample return mission could come back to Earth as early as 2033.

Once the samples have been brought to Earth, scientists can analyze them in laboratories that are more sophisticated and versatile than the instruments that space agencies can send to Mars on their compact probes. This can help answer some remaining, long-standing questions about the Red Planet in a way that would be difficult even for increasingly capable and sophisticated Mars probes.