Federal budget cuts have hit NASA hard.

As a result, the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has reportedly laid off 100 contractors last week, the LA Times reports, potentially forcing it to scale back its hugely ambitious Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.

Last week, JPL director Laurie Leshin told staff that NASA's efforts to return samples from Mars back to Earth may be capped at just $300 million this year, amounting to just over a third of 2023's $822-million budget and less than a third of the budget the Biden administration had requested.

The mission had already been plagued with budget uncertainty. In June, reports emerged that the ambitious mission's costs were growing rapidly, alarming officials. In October, NASA started to reassess the mission's architecture after an independent review board found that the current one had an "unrealistic" budget and schedule.

And it's not just the MSR mission that may end up being hit.

"Adjusting to such a large budget cut in one year will be painful," Leshin wrote in an internal email. "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 MSR."

According to the email, NASA has ordered JPL to cut short a key project within the MSR mission.

The mission, a highly complex joint effort with the European Space Agency, involves shooting samples collected by NASA's Perseverance rover on the Red Planet into Martian orbit, where they'll be picked up by a separate spacecraft to be brought back to Earth in the early to mid-2030s.

The JPL has since implemented a hiring freeze and is pausing work on the mission's Capture, Containment and Retrieval System, which is designed to pick up the samples in orbit and return them to Earth.

Lawmakers voiced their discontent over the cuts, with representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) telling the LA Times that "NASA’s unilateral and unprecedented decision to cut funding for the Mars Sample Return mission, before Congress has finished its appropriations process, is having devastating real world consequences."

"This critical mission was identified as NASA’s highest scientific priority by the decadal survey, and to back away now will relinquish important American leadership in space science," he added, referring to a national symposium into which space projects to prioritize over the next ten years.

Lawmakers in charge of NASA's budget, however, didn't balk at NASA's efforts to return to the Moon, allocating it the requested $7.91 billion for this fiscal year.

More on MSR: Experts Say NASA's Mars Sample Return Plan Is Deeply Flawed

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