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NASA requests research on Mars mission support roles from private space companies

National space agencies have always been solely responsible for Mars exploration, but NASA is attempting to change that by giving private companies a dozen research assignments in advance of future commercial support for trips to the Red Planet.

This is the second time in a month that the agency has expressed a desire for commercial participation in Mars missions; the first mission, the Mars Sample Return, was essentially shelved in favor of an unspecified substitute, most likely being carried out by private space companies.

Nine businesses in all were chosen to carry out twelve “concept studies” examining various aspects of offering services related to Mars, such as communications relays, planetary imaging, and payload delivery. Even though the average award size is modest, ranging from $200,000 to $300,000, these studies represent a significant initial step toward helping NASA gain a better understanding of the costs, risks, and viability of commercial technologies.

The chosen companies are SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, and Blue Origin for next-generation relay series; 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 Lockheed Martin, Impulse Space, and Firefly Aerospace for small payload delivery and hosting services.

According to a NASA statement, almost all of the chosen proposals would modify already-existing lunar and Earth-focused initiatives. August marks the end of the 12-week studies, and there’s no assurance that they will result in more contracts or requests for proposals. Nevertheless, it’s also improbable that contracts in the future would materialize if a company bidding for the contract hadn’t already completed a study.

The businesses were found through an earlier this year request for proposals issued by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The goal, according to that solicitation, is to create a new paradigm for Mars exploration that combines industry and government partnerships to deliver “more frequent, lower-cost missions.”

The program, known as Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), is comparable to the plan in that it offers large contracts to private enterprises for the transportation of payloads to the moon. Additionally, similar to CLPS, which, among other things, helped finance the first successful private lunar lander, these most recent accolades demonstrate the agency’s growing comfort level when collaborating with smaller, earlier-stage startups developing unproven technology.

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