NASA Mars Project Calls Out Industry

6th Feb 2024
NASA Mars Project Calls Out Industry

NASA opened their ‘Exploring Mars Together: Commercial Services Studies’ project to the commercial space sector. As such, the announcement is a bid to gather proposals for more cost effective ways of reaching deep space. NASA explained the programme would involve jointly sourcing solutions from government and industry through: “emerging Earth and lunar products and commercial services.”

In the call-out, NASA said: “The Mars Exploration Program (MEP) Draft Plan through the next two decades would utilise more frequent lower cost missions to achieve compelling science and exploration for a larger community. To realise the goals of the MEP plan, government and U.S. industry would partner…to substantially lower the overall cost and accelerate leadership in deep space exploration.” 

NASA’s Push For Greater Mars Exploration?

Credit: NASA

NASA’s deep space exploration plans are hardly a guarded secret. They have been backing and formulating Mars missions for years. Previously, the agency toyed with the idea of creating several Moon bases – under their Artemis mission – to house astronauts. Ideally, those explorers would be able to use the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars. 

There are also many Mars-encompassing projects in the pipeline that involve sending orbital spacecraft to the red planet. Namely, NASA’s ESCAPADE mission has hopes pinned for a late 2024 launch onboard Blue Origin’s New Glenn. Should the rocket be ready in time, that is. NASA has also developed a new rocket engine that has enough thrust to propel astronauts to Mars. 

NASA is continuously adopting more commercially-led projects for deep space exploration odysseys. But intrinsically, these feats require a monumental amount of funding. Therefore, NASA is calling for four proposals in which commercial space companies detail how they would conduct privatised Mars missions. These proposals must keep cost effectiveness in mind, with a single proposal offering $200,000 or two for a maximum of $300,000. 

Proposals One & Two

NASA’s extensive document outlines four “Design Reference Mission[s]”. The first being a smaller payload delivery and hosting service. Through this concept, NASA is asking for ideas on how the industry would deliver 20 kg cubesats capable of “operat[ing] in Mars orbit” meaning Mars’ sun-synchronous and lower polar orbits. 

Secondly, NASA’s next design reference mission calls for proposals surrounding larger payload delivery and hosting services. Accordingly, NASA are requesting submissions for how candidates may transport “Mars orbit one”, in addition to other “separable spacecraft” that could weigh upwards of 1250 kg.  

Proposals Three & Four

Thirdly, design reference mission three outlines NASA’s requirements for an electro-optical imaging service. Primarily, this service would require the capacity to scope Martian landscapes over a single Mars year. The winning proposal would need to underpin “observational science investigations, landing site selection and hazard assessment, change detection, and monitoring and planning for surface assets.” 

Finally, mission four entails the delivery of a next-generation relay service. Ultimately, the relay would provide a communications link between Earth and Mars in order to monitor “surface and orbital assets.” NASA highlighted that the relay link would need to fulfil a two-Mars year time frame – which equates to four years on Earth. The US space agency added: “with [an] option for sustained long-term services through 2044.” They also emphasised that the relay would need to accommodate an “assum[ed] up to 24-hour DSN availability”.  

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