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NASA commissions five new Mars orbiter designs

As the next step in NASA's Journey to Mars, which seeks to send a manned mission in the 2030s, the space agency has commissioned five US aerospace companies to conduct concept studies for a next-generation orbiter spacecraft.

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NASA's Mars Exploration Program includes two active rovers and three active orbiters. Concept studies have begun for a potential future Mars orbiter mission.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL/USGS

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Putting a person on Mars has long been a dream of science fiction writers, but that vision took a step closer to reality Monday when NASA announced it had commissioned five US aerospace companies to conduct concept studies for a future Mars orbiter mission.

NASA already has a small armada of robots studying the Red Planet, with two rovers on the ground and three spacecraft in orbit. The new orbiter mission would seek to boost capabilities in support of the next stages of the US space agency’s Journey to Mars, which aims to culminate with humans setting foot on the Martian surface in the 2030s.

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“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, in a NASA press release.

The five companies selected for the concept studies are The Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Corporation, and Space Systems/Loral from California, Lockheed Martin in Colorado, and Orbital ATK in Virginia. Their proposals will need to address how a new Mars orbiter mission could most effectively provide communications, imaging, and operational capabilities.

The current flock of orbiters is responsible for relaying about 95 percent of the data from rovers on the Martian surface; the remaining five percent beams back to Earth directly, but this takes far longer and can only happen at certain times.

“Those orbiters are getting long in the tooth,” Richard Zurek at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told New Scientist.

A replacement is therefore needed. But, more than that, enhanced capabilities are required, to provide the subsequent manned mission with the best support possible.

One key aspect of the new spacecraft will be its employment of solar-electric propulsion, a system that harnesses the sun’s energy to propel the craft via the acceleration of ions. This nascent technology is already being used by some Earth-orbiting satellites.

With this fuel-efficient technology, Martian satellites would be able to fly close to the surface, thereby acquiring high-resolution pictures of potential landing sites, as well as carrying sophisticated communications systems to facilitate the work of ground crews.

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But whoever ends up designing the next-generation Mars orbiter, it will likely be beaten to the Red Planet by at least two other spacecraft. InSight is a geophysical lander that NASA aims to land in 2018 and whose mission will be to study the planet’s deep interior. Just two years later, the Mars 2020 rover will be deployed to search for signs of life and lay some groundwork for the manned mission to follow.

“NASA’s strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters.