For SpaceUpClose.com & RocketSTEM
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – NASA has awarded Lockheed Martin a trio of contracts critical to carrying out the world’s first ever Mars Sample Return (MSR) campaign in order to successfully retrieve and return the first ever soil and rock samples from the Martian surface to Earth – currently being gathered by the Perseverance rover and destined to be delivered back to Earth for the first time ever and perhaps determine if the Red Planet ever supported life past or present.
The three key MSR hardware elements awarded to Lockheed Martin, of Littleton, Colorado, involve the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), interplanetary cruise stage for the Mars Sample Retrieval Lander and the Earth Entry System and return capsule holding the Martian samples.
These precious samples collected from the Martian surface will be delivered to Earth via a bold series of successive, integrated NASA and ESA MSR program missions by the early to mid-2030s for analysis by international research teams using the most powerful science instruments available to humankind.
Mars Sample Return (MSR) is the Holy Grail of Mars missions long sought by scientists worldwide to elucidate the early history of Mars and hopefully answer the question of whether the habitable conditions present on the Red Planet billions of years ago ever led to the origin of life and shed light on ‘Are We Alone?’
“Lockheed Martin was awarded three NASA contracts for key elements of the agency’s visionary Mars Sample Return program,” Lockheed Martin announced.
“The award brings NASA a step closer to the first robotic round trip to bring samples safely to Earth through the Mars Sample Return Program,” NASA announced.
The three key elements awarded to Lockheed Martin for development are: First, the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the lightweight rocket that will launch sediment and atmospheric samples from the surface of the Red Planet; Second, development of the cruise stage that will power and steer a Mars sample gathering lander and rover on the interplanetary journey to Mars and touchdown nearby NASA’s Perseverance Rover; Third, the Earth Entry System and return capsule designed to bring those first ever samples safely back to Earth in a protective case.
“This groundbreaking endeavor is destined to inspire the world when the first robotic round-trip mission retrieves a sample from another planet – a significant step that will ultimately help send the first astronauts to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, in a statement.
“America’s investment in our Mars Sample Return program will fulfill a top priority planetary science goal and demonstrate our commitment to global partnerships, ensuring NASA remains a leader in exploration and discovery.”
Under the current MSR architecture MAV would become the first rocket fired off another planet.
MAV is a small, lightweight rocket designed to launch rock, sediment, and atmospheric samples from the surface of the Red Planet that are currently being collected and stored into several dozen sample tubes by NASA’s Perseverance rover.
“The MAV is a crucial part of a campaign to retrieve samples collected by NASA’s Perseverance rover and deliver them to Earth for advanced study. NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander, another important part of the campaign, would carry the MAV to Mars’ surface, landing near or in Jezero Crater to gather the samples cached by Perseverance,” NASA officials explained.
“The samples would be returned to the lander, which would serve as the launch platform for the MAV. With the sample container secured, the MAV would then launch.”
“One step closer to bringing Martian samples to Earth! @NASA has selected Lockheed Martin Space to build the Mars Ascent Vehicle, or MAV. This small, lightweight rocket will be needed to launch samples gathered by @NASAPersevere off the surface of Mars, NASA JPL tweeted with a new MSR mission graphic.
One step closer to bringing Martian samples to Earth! @NASA has selected Lockheed Martin Space to build the Mars Ascent Vehicle, or MAV. This small, lightweight rocket will be needed to launch samples gathered by @NASAPersevere off the surface of Mars. https://t.co/12k7DG7bVy pic.twitter.com/CPfle6vwIq
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) February 7, 2022
The MAV could tentatively be launched to Mars as soon as 2028
“Right now the tentative timeline is as early as 2028 and then samples would come back in the early to mid 2030s,” NASA JPL tweeted.
Hey there, right now the tentative timeline is as early as 2028 and then samples would come back in the early to mid 2030s. You can learn more about the Mars Sample Return program here: https://t.co/FJ7BsuqR90
— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) February 7, 2022
Under the $194 million MAV contract from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Lockheed Martin will design, build, test and deliver the MAV rocket.
The Mars Sample Retrieval Lander will touch down on the Red Planet bringing the MAV ascent vehicle and an ESA built fetch rover along with it to the surface nearby Perseverance roving around Jezero Crater.
The ESA fetch rover will retrieve the samples container tubes already being cached aboard Perseverance since she landed one year ago.
“Once the lander retrieves samples from Perseverance, the MAV will then launch those contained samples into Martian orbit for rendezvous with a European Space Agency orbiter that has the Lockheed Martin-built sample return capsule inside,” Lockheed explained.
“The samples would be returned to the lander, which would serve as the launch platform for the MAV. With the sample container secured, the MAV would then launch,” NASA explained.
“Once it reaches Mars orbit, the container would be captured by an ESA (European Space Agency) Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft outfitted with NASA’s Capture, Containment, and Return System payload.”
NASA and ESA envisage the Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft would bring the samples to Earth safely and securely arriving in the early-to-mid 2030s.
“Committing to the Mars Ascent Vehicle represents an early and concrete step to hammer out the details of this ambitious project not just to land on Mars, but to take off from it,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.
“We are nearing the end of the conceptual phase for this Mars Sample Return mission, and the pieces are coming together to bring home the first samples from another planet. Once on Earth, they can be studied by state-of-the-art tools too complex to transport into space.”
The performance period for the MAV contract begins no later than Feb. 25, 2022 and will extend six years, according to NASA.
“We’re thrilled to partner with NASA on these important elements of NASA’s ambitious Mars Sample Return campaign,” said Lisa Callahan, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager of the company’s Commercial Civil Space business, in a statement.
“It’s a great responsibility to be entrusted to solve the technical challenges of this groundbreaking mission. We’re looking forward to helping NASA blaze new trails in scientific discovery.”
Lockheed’s cruise stage “will power and steer the Mars-bound journey of the lander that retrieves Martian rock and soil samples from the Perseverance Rover. For this $35 million award from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California (JPL), Lockheed Martin will produce the cruise stage and its comprehensive elements, including the solar arrays, structure, propulsion and thermal properties”
Lockheed’s third MSR contract, awarded via JPL, “is for the Earth Entry System. Leveraging government research, the system is designed to bring those first ever samples safely back to Earth in a protective case. This initial $2.6 million award includes preliminary design of the structure that shields the samples as they make their bold return journey through Earth’s atmosphere,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement.
“Lockheed Martin has designed and built return capsules and spacecraft for all three of NASA’s robotic sample return missions – Genesis, Stardust and OSIRIS-Rex. This extensive experience has allowed the company’s engineers to understand and perfect the complexities required to safely deliver a sample home.
The capsule being designed for Mars Sample Return is made of a lightweight-yet-strong composite structure and a special thermal protective material provided by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley that envelop the precious samples.
The structure of this Earth Entry System keeps the sample safe during its months-long cruise in deep space, slows its speed upon arrival and protects it from intense heat as it screams through Earth’s atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour.”
Further details from NASA:
Once it reaches Mars orbit, the container would be captured by an ESA (European Space Agency) Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft outfitted with NASA’s Capture, Containment, and Return System payload. The spacecraft would bring the samples to Earth safely and securely in the early-to-mid 2030s.
Returning a sample is complicated, and MAV faces some complex development challenges. It must be robust enough to withstand the harsh Mars environment and adaptable enough to work with multiple spacecraft. It also must be small enough to fit inside the Sample Retrieval Lander. The Sample Retrieval Lander is planned for launch no earlier than 2026 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Lockheed Martin Space will provide multiple MAV test units and a flight unit. Work under the contract includes designing, developing, testing, and evaluating the integrated MAV system, and designing and developing of the rocket’s ground support equipment.
The cost-plus-fixed-fee Mars Ascent Vehicle Integrated System (MAVIS) contract has a potential value of $194 million. The performance period begins no later than Feb. 25 and will extend six years.
NASA’s Mars Sample Return Campaign promises to revolutionize our understanding of Mars by bringing scientifically selected samples for study using the most sophisticated instruments around the world. The campaign would fulfill a solar system exploration goal, a high priority since the 1970s and in the last two National Academy of Sciences Planetary Decadal Surveys.
This strategic NASA and ESA partnership would be the first mission to return samples from another planet and the first launch from the surface of another planet. The samples collected by Perseverance during its exploration of an ancient river delta are thought to present the best opportunity to reveal the early evolution of Mars, including the potential for life.
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Dr. Kremer is a research scientist and journalist based in the KSC area, active in outreach and interviewed regularly on TV and radio about space topics.
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