The holy grail in planetary science is to return samples of soil and rock from Mars. This is the best chance, with today's technologies, to discover if life exists elsewhere in the solar system. Mission costs, however, have been prohibitive.
That might be about to change.
A heavy-lift rocket being built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) will cut the cost of launching payloads into space from the current rate of about $10,000 per pound to about $1,000 per pound, said company founder Elon Musk during Tuesday's announcement.
"I think we can realistically start to contemplate missions like a Mars sample return, which requires a tremendous amount of lift capability because you have to send a lander to Mars that still has enough propellant to return to Earth," Musk said.
"If you try to do a mission like that with a smaller vehicle, you have to have several launches and either do orbital rendezvous or do some sort of much more complex mission," he said.
Launch costs can eat up 20 to 25 percent of the budget for launching missions, NASA's associate administrator for science, Ed Weiler, told Discovery News.
"We're all praying that Elon Musk is successful and not only delivers these cheap launch vehicles, but a safe launch vehicle. If he does that, he's going to make life a little easier for us," Weiler said.
NASA is partnering with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a three-step mission to return rock and soil samples from Mars to Earth. The first leg of the trip, targeted for launch in 2018, would be to fly a rover to Mars that could collect and cache samples for future pickup. A second spacecraft would land on Mars to pick up the samples and launch them into Mars orbit. A third craft would retrieve the box of samples and fly it back to Earth.
Weiler said cheaper launch vehicles may not change the mission blueprints, but it certainly would make the endeavor more affordable.
"Rising launch costs really start to crimp your ability to do missions," Weiler said.
The new SpaceX rocket, called Falcon Heavy, is based on the company's existing Falcon 9 booster, which NASA is buying to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) after the space shuttle fleet is retired this summer.
Falcon 9 has flown twice, both successfully. In addition to government customers, SpaceX is marketing its Falcon family of rockets to commercial users.
Falcon Heavy's debut flight is targeted for 2013 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Operational missions are planned from SpaceX's Florida launch site.