7 Private Companies Will Help NASA Deliver Samples From Mars

11th Jun 2024
7 Private Companies Will Help NASA Deliver Samples From Mars

NASA officials announced that they had selected the companies for the Mars Sample Return Program (MSR). They will be responsible for developing and implementing an innovative approach to return rock samples from Mars.

Private companies to handle Mars Sample Return Program

NASA took such a step after admitting in April 2024 that the current Mars Sample Return mission had failed, with optimistic forecasts pushing the return of samples to the 2040s. So, NASA representatives turned to the private sector for alternative solutions to overcome the mission’s financial and technological challenges.

Turns out that the space industry has a lot of ideas on how to rescue valuable samples on Mars and speed up their delivery to the Earth.

On 7 June, NASA selected proposals from Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Quantum Space, SpaceX and Whittinghill Aerospace. In an effort to revive the MSR mission, NASA has awarded a $1.5 million contract to each company for 90-day studies.  

NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV)
This illustration shows NASA’s Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) in powered flight. The MAV will carry tubes containing Martian rock and soil samples into orbit around Mars, where ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft will deliver them to Earth. Credit: NASA

Proposal highlights

The companies and their proposals are as follows:

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne in Huntsville, Alabama: “A High-Performance Liquid Mars Ascent Vehicle, Using Highly Reliable and Mature Propulsion Technologies, to Improve Program Affordability and Schedule”
  • Blue Origin in Kent, Washington: “Leveraging Artemis for Mars Sample Return”
  • Lockheed Martin in Littleton, Colorado: “Lockheed Martin Rapid Mission Design Studies for Mars Sample Return”
  • Northrop Grumman in Elkton, Maryland: “High TRL MAV Propulsion Trades and Concept Design for MSR Rapid Mission Design”
  • SpaceX in Hawthorne, California: “Enabling Mars Sample Return With Starship”
  • Whittinghill Aerospace in Camarillo, California: “A Rapid Design Study for the MSR Single Stage Mars Ascent Vehicle”

NASA has yet to reveal the details of the studies beyond the titles of the proposals. For now, it is known that Aerojet, Northrop and Whittinghill are focused on the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) – the rocket that will launch the sample cache from the surface of Mars into orbit around the planet. 

In total, ten organisations are expected to participate in the mission. In addition to seven private contractors, the two NASA centres — the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Applied Physics Laboratory – are involved. The tenth partner has not been named, but it may be the European Space Agency (ESA).

The selected companies will start working in July this year and should complete their studies by October.

Mars samples, NASA
NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover acquired this image using its Right Mastcam-Z camera. Mastcam-Z is a pair of cameras located high on the rover’s mast. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

The mission to explore Mars continues

Currently, NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on the Red Planet in 2021, is collecting samples. The initial plan for retrieving samples involved either taking them directly from Perseverance or using mini rovers or helicopters to collect samples from the surface and transport them to the lift module.

However, after China announced its own mission to return Martian samples by the 2030s, NASA is facing increased pressure to accelerate its efforts.

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