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NASA Awards Study Contracts for Mars Orbiter

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 18, 2016
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NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft artist concept. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft artist concept. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA has selected five U.S. aerospace companies to conduct concept studies for a potential future Mars orbiter mission. Such a mission would continue key capabilities including telecommunications and global high-resolution imaging in support of the agency’s Journey to Mars.

The companies contracted for these four-month studies are: The Boeing Company in Huntington Beach, California; Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver; Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California; Orbital ATK in Dulles, Virginia; and Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, California.

We’re excited to continue planning for the next decade of Mars exploration,” said Geoffrey Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

The concept studies will address how a potential new Mars orbiter mission could best provide communications, imaging and operational capabilities. They also will assess the possibilities for supporting additional scientific instruments and functionalities, in addition to optical communications. The orbiter concept under study would take advantage of U.S. industry’s technology capacities by using solar electric propulsion to provide flexible launch, mission and orbit capabilities.

The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, an organization designed to provide input to NASA from the Mars research science community, published a report six months ago on recommended science objectives for a Mars orbiter. These studies will provide input for assessing the feasibility of addressing these objectives. NASA also is pursuing partnership interest in contributing to this potential mission.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is managing the concept studies under the direction of the agency’s Mars Exploration Program.

NASA is on an ambitious Journey to Mars that includes sending humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. The agency’s robotic spacecraft are leading the way, with two active rovers, three active orbiters, the planned launch of the InSight lander in 2018, and development of the Mars 2020 rover.

For more information about NASA’s Journey to Mars, visit:

5 responses to “NASA Awards Study Contracts for Mars Orbiter”

  1. windbourne says:

    With falcon heavy coming, how about sending not just this Sat, but a number of microsats? They could be used for com network, plus a GPS, and perhaps a single different science package per each. Several might have visible cams, while a few others include IR cams, etc. Even if microsats science goes out, having com link and GPS is invaluable if they will last 20-30 years.

    • Hug Doug ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ says:

      If SpaceX is contracted for the launch. Even if so, a Falcon Heavy probably won’t be used in expendable mode, so there’s that to consider, fuel will be reserved for landing the core and side stages, reducing the payload they would throw to Mars otherwise.

      A regular Falcon 9 is probably a better choice. It better fits the likely payload requirements.

      • windbourne says:

        Lets say that you are going to do an expendable F9. That will only give you 4 tonnes to Mars at a cost of 80 million.
        OTOH, FH gives you 13 tonnes to Mars at a costs of 140 million.

        The ability to send 3x for less than double the costs is likely going to be worth it.

        • Hug Doug ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ says:

          Yeah, but why would they contract out for 13 tonnes when the payload mass is likely only to be 2 tonnes, and probably less?

          For reference, the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter, which is most likely to be the next orbiter to fail and so is in the most need of a replacement, was just 725 kg at launch. MRO, the heaviest orbiter around Mars, was 2,180 kg at launch.

          • therealdmt says:

            Interesting. It makes one wonder when and even if the market will adjust to the possibilities of relatively low cost launches of heavier/larger satellites (or, as windbourne suggested above, swarms of satellites).

            The Falcon Heavy’s use case appears to have become somewhat narrower as the capabilities of the Falcon 9 have increased. However, if customers (including the government) come to build with the Falcon Heavy in mind, that might significantly change the entire way of “doing business” in space.

            Meanwhile, aside from colonizing Mars (a situation the practicalness of which I’m not quite sure I can get my head around!), the situation with the BFR/MCT vis a vis a market that isn’t at all prepared for what it will be offering will be even more dramatic.

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