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JPL Scale Back Mars Return Sample Mission

Mastcam-Z Views ‘Santa Cruz’ on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Ibadan, 15 January 2024. – NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is scaling back its activities around the Mars Return Sample mission in anticipation of potential budgetary cuts to the program in light of the fiscal year 2024 appropriations bill. According to JPL director Laurie Leshin, NASA is anticipating a federal budget that could limit spending on the Mars Sample Return mission at $300 million for the 2024 fiscal year, 36% of the previous year’s $ 822 million budget.

As a result, the laboratory has already laid off 100 contract employees and put on a hiring freeze. Furthermore, NASA has instructed JPL to cease operations at the end of January on a vital project within the mission to bring a piece of Mars back to Earth, a joint project with the European Space Agency. Speaking about the layoffs, the Director also pointed out that “it is also becoming more likely that there will be JPL workforce impacts in the form of layoffs, and the way such JPL workforce actions are implemented means that the impact would not be limited to the mission.”

In November, California lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate noted their dissatisfaction with NASA’s preemptive steps to tackle the reduction in funding before the completion of the 2024 appropriations process. The lawmakers pointed out that the actions may prevent the Agency from meeting its 2030 launch window.

Despite scaling back the Mars Return Sample mission due to budget cuts, Leshin confirmed that other JPL missions remain on track. For example, the Europa Clipper mission to study the icy, potentially habitable moon of Jupiter, is still on track for an October launch as it goes through system-level testing. Likewise, the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission is still going according to schedule, with plans for the launch later this year.

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