Spaceflight Insider

Industry input sought for next NASA Mars orbiter


An artist’s rendition of a satellite around Mars using an optical laser for communicating with Earth instead of radio waves. Image Credit: NASA

NASA is seeking ideas for a high-tech, state-of-the-art Mars orbiter, which is scheduled to be launched the early 2020s. This is one of many steps in the agency’s long-term goal of putting human astronauts on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.

The agency’s Mars Exploration Program conducted a study and published a report last year outlining potential science objectives for an orbiter that will advance both telecommunications and reconnaissance capabilities to and from the Red Planet.

Current Mars Missions

There are currently seven operational vehicles on or around Mars: NASA’s Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN orbiter, Opportunity rover and Curiosity rover; the European Space Agency’s Mars Express; and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Image Credit: NASA

Agency scientists envision the new orbiter, a crucial part of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” efforts, as being capable of better high-resolution imaging, having greater bandwidth communications, and possibly using emerging technologies, such as optical communications and solar electric propulsion.

Together, these technologies will increase the spacecraft’s radio frequency capacity and improve its transmission of data back to Earth.

To best take advantage of cutting edge technologies, NASA is looking to private industry, which is already developing the relevant technologies to potentially design the orbiter, devise a possible mission, improve overall deep space communication, and design scientific instruments that will enable a spacecraft to rendezvous with and capture other spacecraft.

The agency is also seeking input and cooperation from its traditional partners, such as other space agencies that have contributed to numerous Mars missions, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission Orbiter (MAVEN), and the Curiosity rover. MRO and MAVEN are still operating in orbit around Mars in addition to Curiosity still roving the Martian surface.

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and a former astronaut, noted the crucial need for higher bandwidth communication between the next generation orbiter and Earth, as well as the importance of being able to conduct high-resolution overhead imaging of the planet.

“Currently, we depend on our orbiting science missions to perform dual service in making measurements and acting as communication relays, but we can’t depend on them to last forever,” Grunsfeld said. “This new orbiter will use cutting-edge technology to revitalize our ability to continue to explore Mars and support transformative science, including a potential sample-return mission in the future.”


One of a number of concepts NASA is looking into for a Mars orbiter in the early 2020s. Image Credit: NASA

In June, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California will award subcontracts for concept studies to various commercial companies. Each subcontract will provide $400,000 for the study of a spacecraft concept to be developed over a four-month period.

Several upcoming missions will also work toward the goal of landing humans on Mars. The InSight lander, which will drill beneath the planet’s surface to study its interior, will be launched in 2018.

InSight was originally scheduled for a March 2016 launch, but that had to be postponed due to a leak in its main science instrument that could not be repaired before the end of this year’s launch window on March 30.

Mars 2020, another rover, will study the planet’s natural resources and identify potential hazards to future astronauts. It will collect soil samples from the Martian surface, which will then be stored for a future Mars mission to retrieve and return to Earth for analysis.

NASA’s Journey to Mars effort was first outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the US National Space Policy, adopted the same year.

Current and future robotic explorers are steadily increasing scientists’ knowledge of the Red Planet. Additionally, the returning data is expected to help engineers develop technologies capable of keeping astronauts alive on the planet’s surface.


Image Credit: NASA


Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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