DeepSpace: Europe reveals Mars sample return spacecraft as SpaceX builds Starships

Eric Ralph · May 28th, 2019

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On May 27th, the European Space Agency (ESA) published updated renders of a proposed spacecraft, called the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO). ERO would be the last of four critical elements of a joint NASA-ESA Mars sample return mission, meant to return perhaps 1-5 kg (2-11 lb) of Martian samples to scientists on Earth. In a best-case scenario, such a sample return is unlikely to happen before the tail-end of the 2020s and will probably slip well into the 2030s, barring any unexpected windfalls of funding or political support.

Enter SpaceX, a private American company developing Starship/Super Heavy – a massive, next-generation launch vehicle – with the goal of landing dozens of tons of cargo and just as many humans on Mars as few as 5-10 years from now. The radically different approaches of SpaceX and NASA/ESA are bound to produce equally different results, while both are expected to cost no less than $5B-$10B to be fully realized. What gives?

The high price of guaranteed success

  • As proposed, the Mars sample return mission will be an extraordinary technical challenge.
    • At a minimum, the current approach involves sending a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rocket from Earth to Mars, landing the SSTO with extreme accuracy on the back of a new Mars lander, deploying a small rover to gather the sample container, loading that container onto the tiny rocket, launching said rocket into Mars orbit, grabbing the sample with large orbiter launched from Earth, and returning said sample to Earth where it will reenter the atmosphere and be safely recovered.
  • This downright Rube Golberg machine-esque architecture is nevertheless the best currently available with current mindsets and hardware. It’s also likely the only way NASA or ESA will independently acquire samples of Mars within the next few decades, barring radical changes to both the mindsets and technologies familiar and available to the deeply bureaucratic spaceflight agencies.
  • However, this is by no means an attempt to downplay the demonstrated expertise and capabilities of the space agencies and their go-to contractors. Both ESA and NASA have a decades-long heritage of spectacular achievements in robotic space exploration, reaching – however briefly, in some cases – almost every major planet and moon in the solar system.
    • The NASA-supported Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) remains a world-leading expert of both designing, building, and landing large, capable, and long-lived rovers/landers on the surface of Mars. JPL also has a track record of incredible success with space-based orbiters, including Cassini (Saturn), Magellan (Venus), Galileo (Jupiter), Voyager (most planets, now in interstellar space), Stardust (comet sample return), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO, Mars orbiter) and more.
  • This success, however, can often come with extreme costs. NASA’s next Mars rover – essentially a modified copy of the Curiosity rover currently operating on Mars and a critical component of the proposed sample return – is likely to cost more than $2B, while Curiosity cost ~$2.5B. The Cassini Saturn orbiter cost around ~$3.5B for 15 years of scientific productivity. ESA’s Rosetta/Philae comet rendezvous cost at least $2B total. In the scheme of things, it would be hard to think of a more inspiring way to spend that money, but the fact remains that these missions are extremely expensive.

High risk, high reward

  • The price of missions like those above may, in fact, be close to their practical minimum, at least relative to the expectations of those footing the bill. However, it’s highly likely that similar results could be achieved on far tighter budgets, another way to say that far more returns could potentially be derived from the same investment.
    • The easiest way to explain this lies in the fact that the governments sponsoring and funding ESA and NASA have grown almost dysfunctionally risk-averse, to the extent that failure really isn’t an option in the modern era. Stakeholders – often elected representatives – expect success and often demand a guaranteed return on their support before choosing to fight for a given program’s funding.
    • As it turns out, an unwillingness to accept more than a minute amount of risk is not particularly compatible with affordably attempting to do things that are technically challenging and have often never been done before. That happens to be a great summary of spaceflight.
    • As risk aversion and the need for guaranteed success grew hand-in-hand, a sort of paradox formed. As politicians strove to ensure that space agency funding was efficiently used, space agencies became far more conservative (minimizing results and the potential for leaps forward) and the cost of complex, capable spacecraft grew dramatically.
    • The end result: spacecraft that are consistently reliable, high-performance, derivative, and terrifyingly expensive.

  • SpaceX is in many ways an anathema of the low-risk, medium-reward, high-cost approach that government space agencies and their dependent contractors have gravitated towards over the last 40-50 years. Instead, SpaceX accepts medium to high risk to attain great rewards at a cost that space agencies like NASA and ESA are often unable to accept as possible after decades of conservatism.
    • This is the main reason that it’s possible that NASA/ESA and SpaceX will both succeed in accomplishing goals at a dramatically disproportionate scale with roughly the same amount of funding.
    • If NASA/ESA bite the bullet and begin to seriously fund their triple-launch Mars Sample Return program, the missions will take a decade or longer and cost something like $5 million per gram of soil returned to Earth, but success will be all but guaranteed.
    • Both SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy and Mars colonization development programs run significant risks of hitting major obstacles, suffering catastrophic failures, and could even result in the death of crew members aboard the first attempted missions to Mars.
    • For that accepted risk, the rewards could be unfathomable and the costs revolutionary. SpaceX could very well beat the combined might of ESA and NASA to return large samples of Martian soil, rock, and water to Earth, all while launching ~100,000 kg into Martian orbit instead of the sample return’s ~10 kg.
    • In a best-case scenario, SpaceX could land the first uncrewed Starship on Mars as early as 2022 or 2024. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe or the company’s outright collapse, that first uncrewed Mars landing might happen as late as the early 2030s, around the same time as NASA and ESA’s ~10kg of Mars samples will likely be reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Regardless of which approach succeeds first, space exploration fans and space scientists will have a spectacular amount of activity to be excited about over the next 10-20 years.
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– Eric

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