NASA has commissioned 10 studies on returning samples to Mars, most of them commercial

NASA has commissioned 10 studies on returning samples to Mars, most of them commercial

An artist's concept of the Mars Ascent Vehicle orbiting the Red Planet.
Zoom in / An artist’s concept of the Mars Ascent Vehicle orbiting the Red Planet.

NASA announced Friday that it will award contracts to seven companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, to study how to transport rock samples from Mars to Earth at a lower cost.

The space agency put out a call to industry in April to propose ideas on how to return Martian rocks to Earth for less than $11 billion and before 2040, which is the cost and timeline for NASA’s current Mars Sample Return (MSR) plan. A NASA spokesperson told Ars that the agency received 48 responses to the petition and selected seven companies to conduct more detailed studies.

Each company will receive up to $1.5 million for its 90-day studies. Five of the companies selected by NASA are among the agency’s list of major contractors, and their inclusion in the study contracts is not surprising. The other two winners are small companies.

Mars sample return is the top priority for NASA’s Planetary Science Division. The Perseverance rover currently on Mars is collecting dozens of samples of rock powder, soil and Martian air into cigar-shaped titanium tubes for eventual return to Earth.

“Returning samples to Mars will be one of the most complex missions NASA has undertaken, and it is critical that we do it more quickly, with less risk, and at a lower cost,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “I’m excited to see the vision these companies, centers and partners bring as we search for new, exciting and innovative ideas to uncover great cosmic secrets from the Red Planet.”

Who’s in?

Lockheed Martin, the only company to have built a spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, will conduct “rapid mission design studies for Mars sample return,” according to NASA. Northrop Grumman also won a contract for its proposal: “TRL (Technology Readiness Level) MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) high propulsion trades and MSR Rapid Mission Design Conceptual Design.”

These two companies were partners in the development of the solid-propellant Mars Ascent Vehicle for NASA’s current Mars sample return mission. The MAV is the rocket that will propel the capsule containing the rock samples from the surface of Mars into space to begin the months-long journey back to Earth. The participation of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman in NASA’s Mars program, along with the scope of the study proposed in Northrop’s proposal, indicates that they will propose applying existing capabilities to solve the Mars sample return program.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, known as a rocket propulsion supplier, will study a high-performance liquid-propellant Mars ascent vehicle using what it says are “mature, highly reliable propulsion technologies, to improve program affordability and schedule.”

SpaceX, a company with a long-term vision for Mars, also won NASA funding to conduct a study. Her study proposal was titled “Enabling Mars Sample Return Using Spacecraft.” SpaceX is already designing the privately funded Starship rocket with Mars missions in mind, and Elon Musk, the company’s founder, has predicted that Starship will land on Mars by the end of the decade.

Musk has known to miss timeline predictions before with the spacecraft, and landing on the Red Planet before the end of the 2020s remains unlikely. However, the giant rocket could enable delivery to Mars and eventual return of tens of tons of cargo. A successful Starship test flight this week demonstrated that SpaceX is making progress toward that goal. However, there is still a long way to go.

Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company, will also receive funding for a study it calls “Leveraging Artemis for Mars Sample Returns.”

SpaceX and Blue Origin both have multi-billion-dollar contracts with NASA to develop the Starship vehicle and the Blue Moon lander as human spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program.

Two other small companies, Quantum Space and Whittinghill Aerospace, will also conduct studies for NASA.

Quantum, which describes itself as a space infrastructure company, was founded in 2021 by entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian, who also founded Intuitive Machines and Axiom Space. No details are known about the scope of its study, known as the Quantum Anchor Sample Return to Mars Study. Perhaps the “anchor leg” refers to the final stage of returning samples to Earth, like the anchor in a relay race.

Whittinghill Aerospace, based in California, has just a few employees. NASA said it will conduct a rapid design study for a single-stage Mars ascent vehicle.

Missing from the list of contract winners was Boeing, which pushed to use NASA’s expensive Space Launch System for a single-launch Mars sample return mission. Of course, Boeing builds most of the SLS rockets. Most other sample return concepts require multiple launches.

Along with the seven industrial contracts, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University will also produce studies on how to complete a Mars sample return mission at a lower cost.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the main center responsible for managing NASA’s current concept for Mars sample return in partnership with the European Space Agency. However, cost growth and delays prompted NASA officials to decide last April to take a different approach.

Nicola Fox, head of NASA’s science directorate, said in April that she hoped the “offshore” concepts would allow the agency to return samples to Earth in the 2030s, rather than in 2040 or later. “This is certainly a very ambitious goal,” she added. “We will need to look for some new and very innovative possibilities for design and will certainly leave no stone unturned.”

NASA will use the results of these 10 studies to formulate a new approach to returning Mars samples later this year. Most likely, the design that NASA ultimately chooses will mix and match various elements from industry, NASA centers, and the European Space Agency, which remains a committed partner in the Mars sample return with the Earth Return Orbiter.

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