NASA is commissioning 10 studies on Mars Sample Return—most are commercial

Enlarge / An artist’s concept of a 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 more cheaply back to Earth.

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

Each company will receive up to $1.5 million for their 90-day studies. Five of the companies chosen by NASA are among the agency’s roster of large contractors, and their inclusion in the study contracts is no surprise. Two other winners are smaller businesses.

Mars Sample Return is the highest priority for NASA’s planetary science division. The Perseverance rover currently on Mars is gathering several dozen specimens of rock powder, soil, and Martian air in cigar-shaped titanium tubes for eventual return to Earth.

“Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions NASA has undertaken, and it is critical that we carry it out more quickly, with less risk, and at a lower cost,” said Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator. “I’m excited to see the vision that these companies, centers and partners present as we look for fresh, exciting, and innovative ideas to uncover great cosmic secrets from the red planet.”

Who’s in?

Lockheed Martin, the only company that has built a spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, will perform “rapid mission design studies for Mars Sample Return,” according to NASA. Northrop Grumman also won a contract for its proposal: “High TRL (Technology Readiness Level) MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) Propulsion Trades and Concept Design for MSR Rapid Mission Design.”

These two companies were partners in developing the solid-fueled Mars Ascent Vehicle for NASA’s existing Mars Sample Return mission. The MAV is the rocket that will propel the capsule containing the rock specimens from the surface of Mars back into space to begin the months-long journey back to Earth. The involvement of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman in NASA’s Mars program, along with the study scope suggested in Northrop’s proposal, suggest they will propose applying existing capabilities to solve the program of Mars Sample Return.

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

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

Musk has famously missed schedule predictions before with Starship, and a landing on the red planet before the end of the 2020s still seems unlikely. However, the giant rocket could enable delivery to Mars and the eventual return of dozens of tons of cargo. A successful test flight of Starship this week proved SpaceX is making progress toward this goal. Still, there’s 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 Return.”

SpaceX and Blue Origin each have multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA to develop Starship and the Blue Moon lander as human-rated spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program.

Two other small businesses, 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 Leg Mars Sample Return 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 handful of employees. It will perform a rapid design study for a single-stage Mars Ascent Vehicle, NASA said.

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

Alongside the seven industry contracts, NASA centers, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University will also produce studies on how to complete the Mars Sample Return mission more affordablely.

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, cost growth and delays prompted NASA officials to decide in April to take a different approach.

Nicola Fox, head of NASA’s science directorate, said in April that she hopes “out of the box” concepts will allow the agency to get the samples back to Earth in the 2030s rather than in 2040 or later. “This is definitely a very ambitious goal,” she said. “We’re going to need to go after some very innovative new possibilities for a design and certainly leave no stone unturned.”

NASA will use the results of these 10 studies to craft a new approach for Mars Sample Return later this year. Most likely, the architecture NASA ultimately chooses will mix and match various elements from industry, NASA centers, and the European Space Agency, which remains a committed partner on Mars Sample Return with the Earth Return Orbiter.

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