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NASA Seeks Industry Assistance with Mars Infrastructure

Victoria Crater, as seen from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Vital imaging work could soon be offloaded to commercial spacecraft to make way for bigger and bolder missions to follow.
Credit: NASA/JPL

It is no secret that two fronts exist in Martian exploration – the infrastructure supporting Martian missions is aging, and the financial environment within NASA has resulted in the agency struggling to take on new projects. With NASA’s goals of sending humans to Mars in the 2040s fast approaching, the initiatives it uses to enable exploration must adapt to trying times. To do so, NASA has enlisted the help of commercial partners to respond to these two fronts in exploration, aiming to remove some of the technical and financial burden on the agency, so that larger and more ambitious goals can be accomplished in the next 15 to 20 years.   

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program consists of several elements that each perform specific tasks, and partner agencies have contributed their capabilities to support a wide range of activity on and around the Red Planet. These are broken down into fundamental infrastructure components, imaging, communications and payload hosting. For nearly two decades, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has provided the mainstay imaging systems for the planet, using its low orbit to capture images of the various features of the planet. Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter, part of the larger ExoMars architecture, has also contributed to imaging, communications and payload hosting, forming a vital link as various agencies eye a solution to aging infrastructure problems. The oldest orbiter at Mars, Mars Odyssey, has been in orbit since 2001 – and is running dangerously low on fuel. While not the most capable relay, the spacecraft has proved essential for maintaining communications with surface assets and mapping the Red Planet. Other spacecraft, such as MAVEN and Mars Express, perform a variety of “odd jobs” for the relay network, assisting in areas that they can and performing their own independent science duties.

A rendering of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around the Red Planet. NASA’s mainstay orbiter has been in service at Mars since 2005, and is showing signs of its age.
Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA has identified nine U.S. companies to perform a total of 12 concept studies of how commercial services can be applied to enable science missions to Mars. The companies were selected from those that responded to a Jan. 29 request for proposals from U.S. industry, citing the needs of the aging Martian infrastructure.  Each awardee will receive between $200,000 and $300,000 to produce a detailed report on potential services — including payload delivery, communications relay, surface imaging, and payload hosting — that could support future missions to the Red Planet. In a shift from the more multipurpose spacecraft seen across the history of the Mars program, these spacecraft would be highly specialized – performing specific roles to assist in supporting infrastructure and enabling more complex missions to operate at Mars. 

Each of these awards is broken up by notional mission types, areas in which specific spacecraft would perform specific roles instead of inheriting the more traditional “jack of all trades” model from the Mars Exploration Program, a fundamental shift in thinking for both the agency and planetary exploration as a whole outside of the LEO to GEO environment. The awardees consist of the following:

Small payload delivery and hosting services

  • Lockheed Martin Corporation, Littleton, Colorado — adapt a lunar-exploration spacecraft
  • Impulse Space, Inc., Redondo Beach, California — adapt an Earth-vicinity orbital transfer vehicle (space tug)
  • Firefly Aerospace, Cedar Park, Texas — adapt a lunar-exploration spacecraft

Large payload delivery and hosting services

  • United Launch Services (ULA), LLC, Centennial, Colorado — modify an Earth-vicinity cryogenic upper stage
  • Blue Origin, LLC, Kent, Washington — adapt an Earth- and lunar-vicinity spacecraft
  • Astrobotic Technology, Inc., Pittsburgh — modify a lunar-exploration spacecraft

Mars surface-imaging services

  • Albedo Space Corporation, Broomfield, Colorado — adapt a low Earth orbit imaging satellite
  • Redwire Space, Inc., Littleton, Colorado — modify a low Earth orbit commercial imaging spacecraft
  • Astrobotic Technology, Inc. — modify a lunar exploration spacecraft to include imaging

Next-generation relay services

  • Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), Hawthorne, California — adapt Earth-orbit communication satellites for Mars
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation — provide communication relay services via a modified Mars orbiter
  • Blue Origin, LLC — provide communication relay services via an adapted Earth- and lunar-vicinity spacecraft

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program initiated the request for proposals to help establish a new paradigm for missions to Mars with the potential to advance high-priority science objectives. Many of the selected proposals center on adapting existing projects currently focused on the Moon and Earth to Mars-based applications. They include “space tugs” to carry other spacecraft to Mars, spacecraft to host science instruments and cameras, and telecommunications relays. The concepts being sought are intended to support a broad strategy of partnerships between government, industry, and international partners to enable frequent, lower-cost missions to Mars over the next 20 years.

The various design reference missions, or DRMs, requested by NASA for commercial Mars infrastructure development.
Credit: NASA

“We’re in an exciting new era of space exploration, with rapid growth of commercial interest and capabilities,” said Eric Ianson, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. “Now is the right time for NASA to begin looking at how public-private partnerships could support science at Mars in the coming decades.”The 12-week studies are planned to conclude in August, and a study summary will be released later in the year. These studies could potentially lead to future requests for proposals but do not constitute a NASA commitment. However, the growing consensus from within the scientific community suggests that these infrastructure elements remain one of the key bottlenecks to further Martian ambitions, including sending humans to the Red Planet.

The greater push towards commercialization in areas with a well established operational paradigm is apparent throughout the agency; however, Mars presents novel challenges. Speaking at the 2024 Humans to Mars summit in Washington DC, NASA’s Richard Davis described the variety of ways in which lunar and LEO operations differ from Martian operations, citing extreme radiation environments and the challenges of long transits. However, he remained optimistic about the future of such an endeavor, highlighting the upcoming layout of standards for Martian spacecraft operations which the agency seeks to install as a baseline set of rules. At MEPAG, several weeks prior, NASA leadership discussed the upcoming release of a form of handbook that the agency hopes will assist industry in delivering infrastructure elements. In a similar vein, the Commercial Lunar Payload Service initiative also seeks to offer solutions for the delivery of cargo to the lunar surface, which has so far been met with limited success. Upcoming missions, such as the landing of VIPER by Astrobotic, now face even greater pressure to deliver as their payloads represent key architecture elements for the Artemis campaign. Martian based infrastructure may find itself in a similar situation, with increased scrutiny from the level of the CLPS program to ensure that all of the required assets perform as they are expected to. 

Further afield, and perhaps more ambitiously, NASA is concurrently requesting separate industry proposals for its Mars Sample Return campaign, which seeks to bring samples being collected by the agency’s Perseverance rover to Earth, where they can be studied by laboratory equipment too large and complex to bring to Mars. The MSR campaign has faced several challenges in the quest to retrieve samples from the planet, including an in-flux architecture, layoffs and uncertain funding. It is the agency’s hope that the private sector, which has seen tremendous success in other aspects of NASA’s mission, can rise to the challenge and assist with the formulation of a robust and resilient Martian network, so that explorers to follow may be in better hands.

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