In 2033, a US spacecraft will return to Earth carrying the second cache of rocks ever collected from the surface of Mars. The first cache? It will have been collected by China two years earlier, in 2031, according to plans released last week by one of China’s top space scientists.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that either mission will succeed. But China’s impressive recent successes operating on and above the Moon and Mars give the country a better chance at lapping NASA and its partners.
The news may cause alarm among Americans accustomed to being first in space for more than a half-century. This is no Sputnik moment, however, and there is no reason to panic.
A mission to bring back the samples is an impressive technological achievement. But the future of Mars exploration isn’t sample returns; it’s discovering past life on Mars. For now, the US is better positioned to accomplish that goal.
In 1993, NASA initiated the Mars Exploration Program, or MEP, a long-term initiative to explore Martian geology, climate and the possibility of past life, while laying a foundation for human exploration. Over the next three decades, NASA launched orbiters and rovers revealing ancient river and lake beds, as well as mineral evidence of a wet and warm Martian past. These discoveries heightened interest in seeking out evidence for past Martian life, and launching additional probes to find it.
Unfortunately, the scientific instruments necessary to prove that life once existed on Mars are simply too large and complex to transport to the planet’s surface. To make that kind of history-altering discovery, pieces of Mars must be brought back to Earth. That’s a complex endeavor.
For example, one early NASA concept had two rovers landing on Mars, collecting samples and then launching them into orbit, where a third vehicle would rendezvous with them and dispatch them back to Earth. That mission would’ve started launching in 2003 and returned samples in 2008. Instead it was canceled over cost and difficulty.
Twenty years ago, there was little competition for the US in space. The Russian program was in terminal decline, and China was just starting to launch humans into space.
But despite a late start, China’s leadership was determined to catch up. It’s an ambition inspired by the belief that the country’s economic and military future will, in part, be determined by its space capabilities.
During the early 2000s, the Chinese announced an ambitious program of lunar exploration, a future space station and, tentatively, a Mars program. In each case, they have followed through and achieved successes, including lunar rovers, a Mars orbiter and rover, and a small but functional space station that could have Earth orbit to itself if the US doesn’t replace the aging International Space Station by the end of the decade.
That would be a public-relations and technical triumph for the Chinese. But if it doesn’t happen, China remains keen to find another high-profile way to surpass the US in space.
Until recently, Mars was not an obvious place to do it. In 2012, after a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, NASA began work on new concepts for sample-return missions. Like earlier ones, these required multiple spacecraft, starting with a rover to collect samples from a region of Mars that shows promise as a repository of past life.
Rather than wait for the full mission to be designed and built, NASA landed the Mars Perseverance rover near a dried-up Martian river delta in 2021. The rover contains 43 tubes for soil and rock samples that – scientists hope – will eventually be returned to Earth after they’re dropped somewhere on the Martian surface, to be picked up later by another rover. This retrieval rover, in turn, will deliver them to a rocket (which also needs to be landed on Mars) that will fly them to a spacecraft that will ferry them to Earth.
For now, the only part of this return mission that exists is the Perseverance rover, which is currently seeking promising samples for eventual return to Earth.
The other parts of the mission, estimated to cost around $ 5 billion, have yet to be funded or built. They’re also delayed: In March, NASA postponed the return to 2033, from 2031, in part to provide time to simplify the complicated mission.
That’s China’s opening. Its scientists believe they can beat the US back to Earth by leveraging technologies used on China’s recent lunar sample return, and Mars rover and orbiter missions.
As outlined in a presentation given last week by the chief designer of China’s current Mars rover, it’s a simpler mission than NASA’s. Most notably, it doesn’t include rovers that can sample different sites over a large geographic area. Instead, the mission appears to be designed to land, grab samples (potentially using a four-legged robot), and get them back to China.
If China can pull it off, it’s a tremendous technical accomplishment, and the samples will be of considerable scientific interest. With a little luck, they may even contain the evidence of life that US scientists hope to discover with their own samples.
But the US samples, if they’re returned, will be of far greater interest, in part because they will have been carefully chosen from a wide geographic area over a period of years. Odds that either country will find evidence of life remains slim, but the US mission is far more likely to achieve it.
For competitive-minded Americans, that’s not much consolation for finishing second. But in this case, at least, slightly slower may serve US interests.
After all, there’s little likelihood the US or China will launch many additional, costly sample-return missions after the first two. Obtaining the best and most diverse set of samples with the few opportunities available should be the top priority and a source of national pride.
To ensure that happens, Congress should fully fund NASA’s request for the infrastructure necessary to accomplish the sample-return mission by 2033. It also needs to pressure NASA and its contractors to improve the management and bureaucratic deficiencies that have slowed down mission development, as outlined in a 2020 independent review of NASA’s Mars Sample Return program.
For now, the US remains the world’s preeminent space power and explorer. Coming in second in the race for Mars rocks won’t change that status. But it should serve as a reminder that its great geopolitical rivals are improving in their ability to shoot for the stars.