NASA’s Mars 2020 rover on the prowl and geared to collect and cache samples for future return to Earth.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Exploration in our sights – the Moon, Mars, asteroids and elsewhere.

But is NASA ready to analyze extraterrestrial samples? A new study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says no.

The U.S. space agency’s investment in new instruments to analyze extraterrestrial samples is “insufficient” to provide for replacement of existing instruments, says the report.

Mars Ascent Vehicle lifts off from Mars carrying soil samples.
Credit: NASA/ESA

Furthermore, if NASA does not invest additional funds into the replacement of current instrumentation and development of new technologies, technical staff support, and training for the next generation of analysts, current capabilities cannot be sustained, and the full scientific impact afforded by returned samples might not be realized, explains an Academies press statement.

One of the Apollo 16 sample boxes being opened in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory on Earth. The box contains a large rock and many small sample bags.
Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

Paramount importance

A major point: The United States possesses a treasure-trove of extraterrestrial samples brought to Earth by space missions over the past four decades.

Right now, there are two asteroid missions underway – Japan’s Hayabusa2 and NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex.

Both are expected to return asteroid samples in the 2020s, remnants from early in the formation of the solar system.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 is pulling up to Ryugu – a C-type asteroid – for detailed study.
Artwork: Akihiro Ikeshita

As the report observes, having the instrumentation, facilities, and qualified personnel to undertake analysis of returned samples, especially from missions that take up to a decade or longer from launch to return, is of paramount importance if NASA is to capitalize fully on the investment made in these missions.

OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at Bennu.
Credit: NASA/University of Arizona

Another “now is the time”

According to Roberta Rudnick, chair of the committee that wrote the report and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara: “Now is the time to assess how prepared the scientific community is to take advantage of these opportunities.”

Explains the report: Without changes in the funding program, currently robust analytical infrastructure for the study of extraterrestrial samples could suffer from attrition and the addition of new technological innovations could stretch current funding programs.

Wanted: significant investment

The just-issued report recommends that the NASA Planetary Science Division place high priority on investment in analytical instrumentation and curation sufficient to provide for both replacement of existing capacity and development of new capabilities.

Doing so will maximize the benefit from the significant investment necessary to return samples for laboratory analysis from asteroids, comets, the Moon, and eventually Mars and outer solar system moons.

Vice President Mike Pence, center, views Sample 15014, which was collected during Apollo 15 with NASA’s Apollo Sample Curator Ryan Zeigler, left, and Apollo 17 astronaut and geologist Dr. Harrison Schmitt, right, in Lunar Curation Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018 in Houston, Texas. Sample 15014 is one of nine samples out of the 2,196 collected during the Apollo missions that was sealed inside its container on the Moon and still containes gasses from the Moon. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Novel instrumentation

Another key report view: No current missions include the return of extraterrestrial cryogenic materials, but efforts are underway to design missions that could, within the next few decades, return gases and eventually ice from Earth’s Moon, comets, or the icy moons of outer planets.

If one or more of these mission concepts is pursued, it could reap tremendous scientific advances. Samples returned would likely include gases, ice, and organic matter. Appropriate investments in the development of novel instrumentation and analytical techniques, specifically for curation as well as characterization and analysis of non-traditional samples, must start now because they will take decades to complete.

What now?

Flagged in the report is the stalwart work of the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.

The NASA Planetary Science Division should increase support for JSC to develop appropriate facilities necessary for future sample returns of organic matter, ice, and gases, says the report.

The division should also accelerate planning for curation of returned Martian samples, seeking partnerships with other countries as appropriate, the report notes.

For your copy of the new report, Strategic Investments in Instrumentation and Facilities for Extraterrestrial Sample Curation and Analysis, go to:


One Response to “Studying Extraterrestrial Samples: Is NASA Ready? Nope, says New Report”

  • The emphasis needs to be on reliable funding for the training of the next generation of scientists, not just of “technical personnel” associated with specific facilities. Training and supporting creative research scientists is much more expensive than buying instruments and maintaining and building the proper facilities. Imaginative scientists will design and build the next generations of instruments and facilities. They will create the science advances, not simply through the use of already available instruments.

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