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NASA orders studies from private space companies on supporting roles for Mars missions




NASA orders studies from private space companies on supporting roles for Mars missions

Mars exploration has always been the exclusive province of national space agencies, but NASA is trying to change that. awarding a dozen research tasks to private companies as a prelude to commercial support for future missions to the Red Planet.

It’s the second time in a month that the agency has shown commercial support for Mars missions, having more or less scrapped the original Mars Sample Return mission in favor of a yet-to-be-determined alternative, likely by private space companies.

A total of nine companies were selected to conduct twelve ‘concept studies’ on how they could provide Mars-related services, from payload delivery to planetary imaging and communications relays. Although each prize is relatively small – between $200,000 and $300,000 – these studies are an important first step for NASA to better understand the costs, risks and feasibility of commercial technologies.

The selected companies are: Lockheed Martin, Impulse Space and Firefly Aerospace for small payload delivery and hosting services; United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and Astrobotic for large payload delivery and hosting services; Albedo, Redwire Space and Astrobotic for Mars surface imaging services; and SpaceX, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin for the next generation relay series.

Nearly all of the selected proposals would adapt existing projects aimed at the moon and Earth, NASA said in a statement. The 12-week investigations will conclude in August and there is no guarantee they will lead to future requests for proposals or contracts. That said, it is also unlikely that future contracts would emerge without prior research by a company vying for them.

The companies come from a request for proposals issued by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory earlier this year. According to that request, the intention is to develop a new paradigm for Mars exploration, one that enables “more frequent, cheaper missions” through government-industry partnerships.

The plan is similar to the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which offers large contracts to private companies to deliver payloads to the moon. And like CLPS, which, among other things, helped finance the first successful private lunar lander, these latest awards also show that the agency is increasingly comfortable working with smaller, early-stage startups working on unproven technology.