The commissions are the next step in NASA's manned journey to Mars, which is planned for the 2030s.
NASA has commissioned five aerospace companies to develop Mars orbiter designs as part of the next step toward putting a man on the Red Planet in the 2030s. The five companies are Northrop Grumman Corporation, The Boeing Company, Lockheed Martin in Colorado, Orbital ATK in Virginia and Space Systems/Loral from California. The proposals must address how the mission could most effectively provide imaging, communications and operational capabilities.
About 95 percent of the data currently coming from Mars originates in the orbiters presently on the Martian surface.Two active rovers and three active orbiters are now exploring the Red Planet. However, according to Richard Zurek, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., those orbiters are aging and need to be replaced. More capabilities are needed though, if a manned mission is going to be possible.
One of NASA’s requirements for the new orbiter is fuel-efficient technology known as solar-electric propulsion. This system will harness the energy from the sun to propel the craft. The technology is already being used by some of the satellites orbiting Earth. The system would allow the Martian satellites to fly near the planet’s surface, and they would carry sophisticated communication systems.
Each of the aerospace companies designing Mars orbiter concepts will have four months to develop their design. NASA may then partner with one of those companies to carry out the project.
However, no matter which company is chosen by NASA, their orbiter will probably be beaten to Mars by at least two other spacecraft. InSight, the geophysical lander whose mission is to study the planet’s deep interior, is scheduled to land on Mars in 2018. Two years later, the Mars 2020 rover will land, with a mission of searching for signs of life and laying the groundwork for the future manned mission.