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NASA orders studies from private space companies on Mars mission support roles

Illustration of Mars

Mars exploration has always been the exclusive purview 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 its desire for commercial support in Mars missions, having more or less scrapped the original Mars Sample Return mission in favor of a to-be-determined alternative, likely by private space companies.

A total of nine companies were selected to perform 12 "concept studies" on how they could provide Mars-related services, from payload delivery to planetary imaging to communications relays. While each award 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 companies selected 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 next-gen relay series.

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Nearly all the selected proposals would adapt existing projects focused on the moon and Earth, NASA said in a statement. The 12-week studies will conclude in August, and there’s no guarantee that they would lead to future requests for proposals or contracts. That said, it's similarly unlikely that future contracts would appear without a study having previously been done by a company vying for it.

The companies were sourced from a request for proposals put out by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory earlier this year. According to that solicitation, the idea is to develop a new paradigm for Mars exploration, one that delivers “more frequent lower cost missions” via partnerships between government and industry.

The plan is similar to the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which provides large contracts to private companies to deliver payloads to the moon. And like CLPS, which helped bankroll the first successful private lunar lander (among others), these latest awards also show that the agency is increasingly comfortable working with smaller, earlier-stage startups working on unproven tech.