NASA is putting down $10 million on proposals to return Mars samples from Blue Origin, SpaceX and others

It turns out the space industry has a lot of ideas about how to improve NASA's $11 billion, 15-year plan to collect and return samples from Mars. Seven of these proposals have caught the agency's attention.

Announced todayNASA has awarded contracts worth $1.5 million to seven companies to further develop their plans for the updated Mars Sample Return mission. The winners and the title of their proposals are as follows:

  • Lockheed Martin: “Lockheed Martin Rapid Mission Design Studies for Mars Sample Return”
  • SpaceX: “Making Mars sample return possible with spaceship”
  • Aerojet Rocketdyne: “A high-performance liquid Mars Ascent vehicle, utilizing highly reliable and mature propulsion technologies, to improve program affordability and scheduleability”
  • Blue Origin: “Using Artemis for the return of Mars samples”
  • Quantum Space: “Quantum Anchor Leg Mars Sample Return Study”
  • Northrop Grumman: “High TRL MAV Propulsion Trades and Concept Design for MSR Rapid Mission Design”
  • Whittinghill Aerospace: “A Rapid Design Study for the MSR Single Stage Mars Ascent Vehicle”

A total of ten studies were selected to conduct studies, including two NASA centers and the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Applied Physics Laboratory. These were selected after the agency issued a request for proposals in April.

The titles don't really say much about the respective proposals – for example, it's no surprise that SpaceX is offering Starship for a mission to Mars, but how exactly the vehicle will be able to collect and return samples is still unclear. . That's the whole point of the research period: to help NASA understand whether there are viable alternative mission designs or mission elements to bring samples from Mars safely home.

According to the request for proposal, studies could focus on a complete overhaul of the mission design, or on designs that incorporate elements of NASA's MSR mission or NASA's Artemis program.

NASA turned to private industry after finally admitting that the architecture for MSR is incredibly complex. In fact, it's a bit of a misnomer to even call it a single mission, since the plan involved the Perseverance rover, a new sample retrieval lander, a rocket called the Mars Ascent Vehicle, and an Earth Return Orbiter. These vehicles should work in perfect sync to collect and transport the samples.

Last year, an independent review board recommended that NASA reconsider the mission design, given concerns about its technical features and high costs. So the agency is doing just that: In documents related to the RFP, NASA said it was looking for a less complex mission design and one that would reduce overall costs to the agency. The agency also said it was looking for the earliest possible return date.

Companies start work in July and complete their studies in October.

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