NASA selects 9 companies to work on low-cost Mars projects

NASA is expanding its plans for Mars, looking at not only a big, high-budget, long-term project to bring back a sample from Mars but also smaller, lower-cost missions to enable exploration of the red planet. The agency recently announced it has selected nine private companies that will perform a total of 12 studies into small-scale projects for enabling Mars science.

The companies include big names in aerospace like Lockheed Martin and United Launch Services, but also smaller companies like Redwire Space and Astrobotic, which recently landed on the surface of the moon. Each project will get a 12-week study to be completed this summer, with NASA looking at the results to see if it will incorporate any of the ideas into its future Mars exploration plans.

This mosaic is made up of more than 100 images captured by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, which operated around Mars from 1976 to 1980. The scar across the center of the planet is the vast Valles Marineris canyon system.
This mosaic is made up of more than 100 images captured by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, which operated around Mars from 1976 to 1980. The scar across the center of the planet is the vast Valles Marineris canyon system. NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We’re in an exciting new era of space exploration, with rapid growth of commercial interest and capabilities,” said Eric Ianson, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, in a statement. “Now is the right time for NASA to begin looking at how public-private partnerships could support science at Mars in the coming decades.”

The concept studies include looking at ideas for carrying payloads to Mars, such as adapting lunar vehicles for Mars exploration, and for imaging the surface of Mars, using adapted Earth imagining technology or lunar exploration technology. There is also a group of three studies into communication systems, including one from SpaceX, which aims to test out ideas for adapting Earth communication satellites for use at Mars.

Each of the awardees for the program will receive between $200,000 and $300,000 to test out the ideas and produce a report, showing how the technology could be used in future Mars missions.

This is in addition to NASA’s recent announcement that it is looking for ideas from industry for its Mars Sample Return mission, which has been struggling to come up with a concept that is feasible within a reasonable budget. Previous estimates put the cost of the mission as planned at up to $11 billion, which was judged to be too expensive. Now NASA is asking for ideas from commercial partners for that mission too, possibly including technology like the SpaceX Starship rocket, which is being prepared for use in lunar missions.

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