NASA’s missions to Mars and the Moon are falling apart. Double defeat by China looks increasingly likely

Farewell to NASA space supremacy? The Chinese offensive threatens the landing of the first woman on the Moon and, above all, the mission to collect samples on Mars.

It is not unusual for China to achieve milestones in space exploration that the United States does not yet have such achievements as a successful landing on the far side of the Moon or the delivery of samples from the youngest regions of the satellite to Earth. But what happens if China hits where it hurts?

NASA’s two most important exploration missions right now are to bring back to Earth the rock samples that the Perseverance rover is collecting on Mars, and return to the moon in 50 years with the first woman. With the space agency’s budget problems and delays by its partners jeopardizing the two missions, China is likely to achieve both goals before NASA.

Returning a sample from Mars

Overshadowed by the glory of its small moon Ingenuity, NASA’s Perseverance rover has done a brilliant job of collecting samples of Martian rocks and placing them in tubes on the surface of Mars so that NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) can return them to Earth. in the future Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.

The news is that NASA just stopped development of the MSR in an attempt to contain its budget after a pair of expert committees concluded that the mission could not be completed until 2040 with a budget of $8 billion to $11 billion, more than doubling exceeds expected. .

What is MSR? The first mission to return samples from another planet is, as expected, quite complex, and its design has changed. Essentially, it consists of launching the European Earth Returner Orbiter (ERO) spacecraft and the US Sample Retrival Lander (SRL) spacecraft to Mars to pick up tubes from the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars and bring them back to Earth for further use. analysis. .

Until a few days ago, ERO was planned to launch in 2030 and remain in orbit around the Red Planet awaiting SLR. The SLR will launch in 2035 and descend to the surface of Mars to collect up to 30 vials of samples from the Perseverance rover. The samples will be delivered by Perseverance itself, if it is still operational by then, or they will be picked up by two Ingenuity-like sample-collection helicopters.

The original plan was to use a European rover called the Sample Fetch Rover (SFR) to collect the samples, but NASA decided to take it out of the equation to make it easier for the SLR, which needs to carry its own rocket to return from the surface of Mars. into its orbit with samples. The rocket is the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which, once in orbit, will carry samples to Europe’s ERO spacecraft so it can return to Earth.

NASA is asking the private sector for help. With the mission in a vegetative state, NASA has put out a call to the private sector for ideas on how to return at least 10 vials of Perseverance samples without spending $11 billion and without waiting until 2040 in the first place. At that time, the space agency assumed that there would already be astronauts on Mars.

Since the main problem of the mission is the weight of the MAV, one of the first industry players to react was Elon Musk. “Starship has the potential to deliver tons of cargo from Mars in about five years,” Musk wrote to NASA.

It would make sense to redesign the MSR mission to take advantage of the SpaceX vehicle’s cargo capacity. NASA is already funding the development of Starship as part of the HLS lunar program. But the Starship has more pressing tasks, which we will talk about a few lines below.

Chinese rover Zhurong on Mars

China is taking the lead. One immediate consequence of leaving the future of the MSR mission open is that China is now leading the race to return samples from another planet with the Tianwen-3 mission.

Tianwen-3 begins with the launch of two spacecraft to Mars in 2030. One of them descends to the planet’s surface, collects samples using a drill, and takes off on a rocket to return to orbit. Another collects samples and returns them to Earth.

It’s a simpler mission because it doesn’t require the rock-selection work done by the Perseverance rover, but its advantage over NASA and ESA’s MSR mission is its simplicity.

Artemis III

Amid all this confusion, a rumor has surfaced: NASA is exploring alternatives to the Artemis 3 moon landing, given the prospect that SpaceX’s Starship won’t be ready on time. Scheduled for September 2026, Artemis III was billed as America’s return to the moon and the first time a woman and person of color would set foot on the satellite.

What is Artemis III made of? NASA’s third Artemis mission sends four astronauts to the Moon on a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft. Once in lunar orbit, the Orion spacecraft docks with the SpaceX Starship HLS spacecraft, which carries two astronauts to the lunar surface near the lunar south pole.

The two NASA astronauts will stay on the Moon for several days before returning to Orion. To do this, Starship HLS fires engines based on methane and liquid oxygen and returns to lunar orbit.

What changes is NASA proposing? With development of the Axiom spacesuit and SpaceX spacecraft delayed, NASA is looking at domestic alternatives to landing on the moon. Although not confirmed, alternatives would be much less ambitious:

  • One option is to launch Orion into low Earth orbit and dock there with a starship launched separately by SpaceX. During this mission, similar to Apollo 9, NASA will test the ability of Orion and Starship to dock and carry astronauts, as well as Starship’s ability to carry crew, even if only a few hundred kilometers above. Earth.
  • Another option would be for Artemis III to completely destroy Starship and become a non-landing mission in which astronauts would dock with the Orion spacecraft to a primitive version of the Gateway lunar station orbiting the Moon.

It’s crazy to use the huge SLS rocket, which costs billions of dollars to launch, to send the Orion spacecraft into low Earth orbit, something the Falcon 9 could do for $60 million. But the first option makes a lot of sense in some ways.

Artemis III was going to be made without first testing the docking of Orion with the SpaceX ship or transferring the astronauts into flight. The only thing planned is SpaceX’s unmanned lunar landing demonstration in 2025. A modern version of Apollo 9 would have significantly reduced the risk.

Chinese lunar ships Mengzhou and Lanyue

China also has options on the Moon. No one is going to take away the title of first country on the Moon from the US, but China still has options to host the first woman depending on the maturity level of SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon ships in 2030.

As with the Mars sample collection mission, China has an easier alternative to returning to the Moon in 2030. The first mission to the Moon of the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) consists of the launch of two spacecraft: an orbiter called Mengzhou (梦舟). ), meaning “dream ship”, and a lander called Lanyue (揽月), meaning “to hug the moon”.

Two 90-meter-tall Long March 10 rockets will launch the ships separately. Mengzhou will host three astronauts who will travel from Earth to lunar orbit. Lanyue will place two of them on the lunar surface. He will then return them to Mengzhou, which in turn will return them to Earth.

We’re not in the 60s, but there’s a new space race underway and everything points to the country that’s willing to put the most money into it winning.

In Hatak | If Starship fails, China could overthrow US hegemony in space

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