WASHINGTON — NASA is rushing to award sole-source contracts to some 25 vendors for the planned sample-caching Mars 2020 rover, which is based closely on the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover now operating on the red planet.

John McNamee, the Mars 2020 project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, named some of the companies already under contract, including Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver and Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California. 

From Lockheed Martin, NASA is procuring material needed for the heat shield that will protect the car-sized rover during its fiery entry into the martian atmosphere, an event JPL engineers refer to as the “seven minutes of terror.” Aerojet Rocketdyne, meanwhile, will provide copies of the maneuvering thrusters Curiosity used during its six-month cruise phase to Mars and the eight rocket engines used to slow the craft during its final descent to the martian surface. 

By mass, Mars 2020 and Curiosity will be 90 percent identical, McNamee said in a presentation to the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) here May 14.

Also under contract is Moog Inc. of East Aurora, New York, which will provide valves for some of the descent stage’s rocket plumbing, according to McNamee.

NASA spokesman Guy Webster could not provide the value of these contracts by press time.

Other Curiosity-heritage hardware providers are not yet under contract but may be soon, Webster said in a May 16 email. These include Honeywell Aerospace of Clearwater, Florida and Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado. Honeywell made the miniature inertial measurement unit for Curiosity’s cruise and descent stages; Sierra Nevada built the so-called descent brake mechanism that allowed Curiosity’s skycrane landing system to safely unfurl the cable that lowered the rover to the planet’s surface.

NASA unveiled Mars 2020 along with its 2013 budget request, billing the rover as a collaboration between the agency’s Science and Human Exploration and Operations mission directorates. While the rover will depart significantly from the Curiosity design in some respects — including a brand new sample-caching and storage system and a sturdier set of wheels — it will essentially be a clone, either using spare parts or rebuilds from the Curiosity program.

There are $200 million worth of spare parts left over from Curiosity’s development, according to slides McNamee presented to the MEPAG. They include a flight-spare radioisotope power system — a nuclear battery used for deep-space missions — to be provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne under a sole-source Department of Energy contract announced back in November.  

NASA’s 2014 budget includes $65 million for the Mars 2020 rover, which would notionally lift off in July or August of 2021 and arrive at Mars in February 2021. NASA requested $92 million for 2015. Annual spending would jump to more than $200 million in 2016 before peaking at just over $415 million in 2017, according to the 2015 budget request NASA released in March. 

Among the biggest question marks on the Mars 2020 design is the science payload. Besides caching samples, the mission is expected to assess the potential habitability of ancient Mars, as its forbearer Curiosity is doing during a two-year primary mission that began in August 2012.

Roughly $100 million of Mars 2020’s expected $1.5 billion development budget will go to the science payload, McNamee said. NASA hopes to select the instruments by July, McNamee said, so that engineers at JPL can finalize spacecraft design choices that hinge on the position, mass and power requirements of the hardware. 

Mars 2020 also could have international contributions. NASA is talking with the Canadian Space Agency, which could provide a robotic arm for the rover’s sample caching system, and the government of Spain, which could provide copies of the weather sensors used by Curiosity, McNamee said.

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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...