As NASA Dithers, the Boldly Go Institute Plans Mars Sample Return

The quickly expanding list of privately funded space ventures added a new name this week, The Boldly Go Institute, and its goals are worthy of the name.  Headlined by Dr. Jon Morse, Dr. Laurie Leshin and Dr. Scott Parazynski, all NASA veterans, the institute seeks to step in where NASA is falling short with big ticket science projects “by flying space missions with compelling science goals, using private funding and NewSpace development paradigms, BoldlyGo advances science and broadens engagement for future space exploration.”

The first two missions it hopes to fund are a Mars flyby sample return mission called SCIM, and a Hubble follow on telescope with the more generic name of Astro-1.

SCIM, which stands for Sample Collection to Investigate Mars, would see a small probe launched in either the 2018 or 2020 launch windows, which would the make a razor close pass of the Red Planet six months later, flying through the atmosphere at a mere 37 km above the surface. Timed to coincide with seasonal dust storms, the probe would collect samples of airborne particles in the same aerojel used for the Stardust comet sample collection mission, returning to Earth almost two years after the launch date.

The video below highlights the mission

The estimated cost is quoted in Space New as being on the order of “several hundred million dollars,”  and the non-profit’s second project, the Astro-1 telescope would be in the billion dollar range, a sum which obviously raises questions of whether the plan is financially achievable, even if the technical plans are sound. which they clearly appear to be.  The SCIM mission concept has been around for some time, and with Mars veteran Lockheed Martin updating its designs for the elongated atmospheric entry vehicle, the biggest operational question may be the unpredictable amount of dust being in the right place at the right time time.

If the killer asteroid hunting B612 Foundation’s Sentinel project, which is still a long way from being fully funded is any indication, major philanthropic donors have yet to firmly latch on to the notion of large privately funded space missions as worthy recipients for charitable giving. Nevertheless, the entry of a new organization such as BoldyGo may help to build overall awareness of the field.

It also raises the question once again, of just what NASA is doing with its resources and the opportunity costs of what it is not able to do because of choices made. Even under the best of circumstances there are always going to be more worthy projects than funds to undertake them, but with massive cost overruns on projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope consuming nearly everything in its path, it is not hard to see why a privately funded Hubble follow-on may be the only hope for an entire generation of scientists once that great observatory is retired.

As for the SCIM mission to collect dust samples from the Martian atmosphere,  while lacking the heft of a true sample return mission with a variety of selected specimens, it still represents a meaningful advance in the next phase of Mars exploration.  Moreover, based on the cost estimate provided, it appears the mission could be mounted for nearly the same amount that the U.S. Senate showered on SLS last week in excess of what was requested by NASA.

For a system which we are constantly being reassured will take us to Mars, or at least to Mars orbit, sometime after the next 20 years have slipped by, one might think bringing back an actual sample of the Red Planet six years from now would have been a compelling project.  Nah.

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4 Comments on "As NASA Dithers, the Boldly Go Institute Plans Mars Sample Return"

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  1. kap55 says:

    Two typos: 1) “razor” close pass; 2) “airborne” particles

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