NASA Selects Contractor to Build Mars Sample Return Mission Rocket


One of NASA’s most ambitious research missions over the next 10 years will be the delivery of soil samples from the surface of Mars to Earth. In total, this task will take about 15 years and will require three spacecraft.

Preparation for the delivery of Martian soil to Earth began back in 2020, along with the launch of the Perseverance rover. The rover reached the neighboring planet in February 2021. As it moves across the planet’s surface, Perseverance occasionally selects soil samples of interest to scientists, packs them in airtight tubes and leaves them on the way.

The next two launches are scheduled for 2028, though they were originally expected to take place two years earlier. One of the launches will carry the ERO (Earth Return Orbiter) transport module into orbit. Its development is the responsibility of the European Space Agency, but the equipment for the spacecraft will provide NASA. The second launch will send the SRL (Sample Retrieval Lander) landing vehicle to Mars with a takeoff rocket and a small Mars rover. This rover will also be built in Europe.

The SRL is scheduled to land on Mars in the Jezero crater near the Perseverance rover’s operating area. The small European rover will descend from it, collect rock samples left behind by Perseverance, and deliver them to the landing station. Using a robotic arm, the tubes will be moved to a takeoff rocket mounted on the SRL. This rocket is called the MAV – Mars Ascent Vehicle, i.e., “Martian Ascent Vehicle.”

On Monday, Feb. 7, 2021, NASA announced that Lockheed Martin will develop the takeoff rocket for the Sample Retrieval Lander. The cost of work on this contract will be $ 194 million.

Under the terms of the contract, Lockheed Martin will have to develop the design, build the rocket and test it. Also the company is responsible for creation of auxiliary launch equipment that will be installed on the SRL platform.

The MAV’s mission is to deliver a container of collected soil samples into Mars orbit. The general appearance of the rocket was determined in a special study in 2019-2020 by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. It will be a two-stage solid propellant rocket, 2.8 meters high and 57 centimeters in diameter. Its launch mass will be no more than 400 kg, and the payload to be launched into Mars orbit will be 14-16 kg. In March last year, an order to produce solid rocket motors for both stages was placed with Northrop Grumman.

The total cost of the Mars Sample Return mission was estimated at $7 billion last year, but it could increase markedly in the future. The arrival of Martian soil samples to Earth is expected in the mid-2030s.

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