NASA Awards Contracts for Mars Sample Return Mission Studies


The space industry has introduced multiple ideas to enhance NASA’s $11 billion, 15-year initiative for collecting and returning samples from Mars. Seven of these proposals have piqued the agency’s interest.

Announced today, NASA has granted $1.5 million contracts to seven firms to further develop their plans for the updated Mars Sample Return mission. The awardees and their proposal titles are as follows:

  • Lockheed Martin: “Lockheed Martin Rapid Mission Design Studies for Mars Sample Return”
  • SpaceX: “Enabling Mars Sample Return With Starship”
  • Aerojet Rocketdyne: “A High-Performance Liquid Mars Ascent Vehicle, Using Highly Reliable and Mature Propulsion Technologies, to Improve Program Affordability and Schedule”
  • Blue Origin: “Leveraging Artemis for Mars Sample Return”
  • 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 — from two NASA centers, along with the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Applied Physics Laboratory — were chosen after NASA issued a request for proposals in April.

The proposal titles do not provide many details — for instance, it’s expected that SpaceX would propose Starship for a Mars mission, but the specifics of how the vehicle will collect and return samples remain uncertain. The study period’s purpose is to help NASA evaluate whether there are feasible alternative mission designs or elements for safely returning Martian samples.

According to the request for proposals, studies might propose entirely new mission designs or include aspects of NASA’s current MSR mission or Artemis program.

NASA turned to private industry after acknowledging the complexity of its MSR architecture. It’s somewhat misleading to call it a single mission, given that the plan involves the Perseverance rover, an innovative sample retrieval lander, a Mars Ascent Vehicle rocket, and an Earth return orbiter. These components must function in perfect harmony to collect and transport the samples.

Last year, an independent review board advised NASA to reconsider the mission design due to technical concerns and high costs. Consequently, NASA is seeking a less intricate mission design that would lower overall costs and achieve the earliest possible return date.

Companies will commence work in July and are expected to complete their studies by October.

Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei
Aria Alamalhodaei covers the space and defense industries. Previously, she covered the public utilities and the power grid for California Energy Markets. You can also find her work at MIT’s Undark Magazine, The Verge, and Discover Magazine. She received an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. Aria is based in Austin, Texas.

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