NASA Plans Commercial Future for Mars

NASA Plans Commercial Future for Mars

NASA is looking to forge commercial partnerships in support of its ambitious Mars exploration plans. By summer, the agency should have a clearer picture of potential collaborations with the private sector.

On January 29th, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory solicited proposals for "commercial service studies" related to future robotic Mars missions. These studies, with individual values of $200,000 to $300,000, would take place over a 12-week period.

The focus of the studies is four specific mission concepts where commercial involvement could be beneficial: small payload delivery to Mars orbit (up to 20 kilograms), large payload delivery (up to 1,250 kilograms), high-resolution Martian surface imaging, and Mars-Earth communications relay.

These studies stem from NASA's draft Mars exploration strategy, "Exploring Mars Together," unveiled nearly a year ago. The strategy outlined post-Mars Sample Return missions and included potential commercial partnerships alongside traditional NASA-led efforts.

"We're really interested to see what the commercial sector can provide from a commercial standpoint," stated Eric Ianson, director of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, at a recent Planetary Science Advisory Committee meeting.  "We’re intending to make multiple selections for these studies to assess cost, feasibility and technological maturity of potential services at Mars.”

With proposals due on February 27th, NASA is currently evaluating them with the aim of making awards in April.  Results from these studies should be publicly available sometime this summer.

Some studies will focus on filling potential gaps in NASA's Mars infrastructure. Ianson explained, "Our Mars relay network is aging and we are concerned about being able to maintain the capability of providing data relay back to Earth from the Martian surface."  This service is currently provided by aging science orbiters.

Similarly, the crucial high-resolution imaging provided by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter could benefit from commercial partnerships. Ianson noted, "We'd like to find out what else industry may be able to do in this area.”

Beyond technical feasibility, these studies will examine commercial viability. Ianson highlighted communications relay as an example:  "Is there an interest in the commercial sector in being able to provide services related to comm relay at Mars, and if so, what would that cost, what would it look like, how would we develop that public-private partnership?"

Members of the Planetary Science Advisory Committee see parallels with NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, but questioned whether purely commercial interest in Mars missions would be sufficient.

Ianson acknowledged the potential differences from CLPS, emphasizing that a key goal of the studies is to see how mutually beneficial public-private partnerships could be structured. He cautioned against referring to it as "Mars CLPS," noting the studies don't currently cover Mars landings.

Lori Glaze, director of NASA's planetary science division, clarified: "We're not talking about just taking CLPS and moving it to Mars. It’s a different business model. But, the idea of a service approach is something that’s worth exploring.”

Alongside these commercial studies, NASA is actively refining its "Exploring Mars Together" strategy based on community feedback. A formal written version of the strategy is expected this summer.

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