Commercial firms to conduct 10 studies on Mars Sample Return, commissioned by NASA

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NASA has announced that it will be awarding contracts to seven companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, to study how to transport rock samples from Mars back to Earth more cost-effectively. The goal is to find a way to bring back the Mars samples for less than $11 billion and before 2040, which is the current cost and schedule for NASA’s existing plan for Mars Sample Return (MSR). The agency received 48 responses to its call for proposals and has selected these seven companies to conduct more detailed studies.

Each company will receive up to $1.5 million for their 90-day studies. Five of the chosen companies are large contractors that have worked with NASA before, while the remaining two are smaller businesses. The Mars Sample Return mission is a top priority for NASA’s planetary science division. The Perseverance rover, currently on Mars, is collecting rock powder, soil, and Martian air samples in titanium tubes for eventual return to Earth.

The involvement of SpaceX and Blue Origin in the study contracts is significant. SpaceX, which already has plans for Mars missions with its Starship rocket, proposed a study titled “Enabling Mars Sample Return with Starship.” The Starship rocket, which Elon Musk predicts will land on Mars by the end of the decade, could enable the delivery and return of large cargo from Mars. Blue Origin, on the other hand, proposed a study called “Leveraging Artemis for Mars Sample Return.” Both companies have multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA for other projects, such as the development of human-rated spacecraft for the Artemis program.

Lockheed Martin, the only company that has successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars, will be responsible for “rapid mission design studies for Mars Sample Return.” Northrop Grumman, which partnered with Lockheed Martin in developing the Mars Ascent Vehicle for NASA’s existing Mars Sample Return mission, will perform “High TRL MAV Propulsion Trades and Concept Design for MSR Rapid Mission Design.” These two companies have the experience and expertise in Mars missions, and their involvement suggests that they will propose using existing capabilities to solve the challenges of Mars Sample Return.

Aerojet Rocketdyne, a rocket propulsion supplier, will study a high-performance liquid-fueled Mars Ascent Vehicle using mature propulsion technologies to improve program affordability and schedule. Quantum Space, a space infrastructure company founded by Kam Ghaffarian, and Whittinghill Aerospace, a small aerospace company based in California, will also conduct studies for NASA.

Notably missing from the list of contract winners is Boeing, which has been advocating for the use of NASA’s expensive Space Launch System (SLS) for the Mars Sample Return mission. Boeing constructs most of the SLS rocket, but most other sample return concepts require multiple launches.

In addition to the industry contracts, NASA centers such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University will also produce studies on how to make the Mars Sample Return mission more affordable. JPL is the lead center in charge of managing NASA’s existing concept for Mars Sample Return in partnership with the European Space Agency. However, due to cost growth and delays, NASA officials decided to seek new approaches.

According to Nicola Fox, head of NASA’s science directorate, the aim is to bring the Mars samples back to Earth in the 2030s instead of 2040 or later. She hopes that “out of the box” concepts and innovative designs will help achieve this ambitious goal. NASA plans to use the results of these studies to develop a new approach for Mars Sample Return later this year. It is likely that the chosen architecture will combine elements from industry, NASA centers, and the European Space Agency, which remains a committed partner in the Mars Sample Return mission.

Bringing back rock samples from Mars is a significant scientific endeavor that could provide valuable insights into the planet’s geological history and potential signs of past or present life. The success of the Mars Sample Return mission depends on finding cost-effective and efficient ways to transport these precious samples back to Earth. The involvement of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, with their ambitious plans for Mars colonization and resource utilization, could bring new perspectives and innovative solutions to this complex challenge.

SpaceX’s Starship rocket, in particular, has the potential to revolutionize space exploration and transportation. With its massive payload capacity, it could allow for the return of large amounts of cargo from Mars, including the Mars samples. Although the timeline for Starship’s Mars landing remains uncertain, the progress demonstrated by recent test flights shows that SpaceX is making significant strides towards its goal.

The involvement of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both of which have experience in Mars missions, suggests that they will leverage their existing capabilities to contribute to the Mars Sample Return mission. Their expertise in developing the Mars Ascent Vehicle, which will propel the capsule containing the rock specimens from the Martian surface back into space, will be instrumental in solving the technical challenges associated with sample retrieval.

The inclusion of smaller businesses like Quantum Space and Whittinghill Aerospace in the study contracts provides an opportunity for new and innovative ideas. Quantum Space, in particular, with its focus on space infrastructure, could propose novel approaches to sample return. Whittinghill Aerospace’s rapid design study for a single-stage Mars Ascent Vehicle may offer a more streamlined and cost-effective solution.

The absence of Boeing from the list of contract winners raises questions about the viability of using the Space Launch System for Mars Sample Return. While the SLS is a powerful rocket, its high cost and limited launch cadence make it less feasible for conducting multiple launches required for sample return missions. NASA’s decision to explore alternative options shows a commitment to finding the most efficient and affordable solution.

Overall, the selection of these seven companies, along with the studies conducted by NASA centers, signifies a collaborative and comprehensive approach to solving the challenges of Mars Sample Return. By leveraging the expertise and resources of both industry and research institutions, NASA aims to develop a new architecture that ensures the successful retrieval of Mars samples in the coming decades. The insights gained from studying these samples could unlock the secrets of Mars and pave the way for future human exploration and colonization of the red planet.

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