Mars Base Camp lander
Lockheed Martin's proposed reusable Mars lander, a new element to its Mars Base Camp architecture. Credit: Lockheed Martin

ADELAIDE, Australia — Lockheed Martin released an update to its Mars mission architecture Sept. 29, adding a reusable lander capable of making multiple trips between Mars orbit and the surface.

The company presented an updated version of the Mars Base Camp concept during a talk at the 68th International Astronautical Congress here, arguing that the proposal fit into growing interest in operations in cislunar space as well, including landings on the surface of the moon.

The original architecture, which the company unveiled last year, called for the development of a modular spacecraft that could carry six people into Mars orbit and back. Lockheed believed that the system, which made use of the Orion spacecraft and other elements, could be ready to send people to Mars as soon as 2028.

The company has now added to the system a lander, launched separately from the base camp spacecraft, that could transport crews from the Mars Base Camp spacecraft in orbit to the Martian surface.

The single-stage lander uses aerodynamics to reduce most of its velocity while descending to the surface. That can be done, the company said, using materials similar to that used on the high-speed SR-71 jet that are not ablative and do not require to be replaced after each mission.

Liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engines handle the rest of the landing as well as takeoff back to Martian orbit. The vehicle weighs 30 metric tons dry and can carry 80 metric tons of propellant, with a total delta-v, or change in velocity, of 6 kilometers per second from its engines.

“You can fuel up in orbit and have enough for a two- or three-week stay on the surface with up to four crew,” said Rob Chambers, one of the Mars Base Camp designers, in an interview at the conference prior to the presentation. The lander could be then refueled and flown again, he said, with up to three trips to the surface per mission to Mars. He said the lander is intended to support at least six sorties to the Martian surface over its life.

This concept can be extended to the moon as well. “Do we, the human race, want to start landing on the moon again?” he said. “Let’s do the best we can not to create something that’s a point solution for the moon but think about what it will allow us to do for Mars as well.”

The same lander could be used for lunar landings, even if it retains the aerodynamic shape not needed for lunar landings. “It certainly lends itself to being used on the moon as well,” Chambers said, either to test it for Mars mission or for standalone lunar uses. Future work is planned to remove those aerodynamic elements from the lander to increase its payload capacity for lunar missions.

One advantage the lander would have on the moon is that, by using its onboard cryogenic propellants to produce power, it can operate in even permanently shadowed regions of lunar craters where solar power is not feasible. “With the zero-boiloff-powered fuel system, the lander is extremely happy in the darkest craters on the lunar surface,” said Danielle Richey, advanced programs exploration architect at Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin also used the talk to emphasize the development of a “water-based economy” in space where water is extracted from the moon or asteroids for use as propellant or other applications in Earth orbit and beyond.

The development of that water-based economy was one reason the company selected liquid hydrogen and not methane for the lander’s propulsion system, along with the overall efficiency of that propellant combination.

“The high efficiency is really important. It enables things like the lander,” said Tim Cichan, space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin, in the presentation. “We’ve also been working with hydrogen upper stages for a long time with the Atlas Centaur all the way back to the ’60s, so we know how to do those types of systems.”

Cichan said later that the water that would be converted to liquid hydrogen and liquid hydrogen could be delivered to Mars orbit in any number of ways, ranging from direct transport from the Earth to extraction from asteroids. “As long as the water shows up, and it can be turned into propellant, we’re happy.”

The overall Mars Base Camp proposal also fits into concepts under study by NASA for a Deep Space Gateway in cislunar space that serves as a testbed for future Mars missions. Chambers said that the interest in the gateway concept, along with language in a NASA authorization bill signed into law earlier this year that calls for a report on a human Mars mission by 2033, have shown to the company that the Mars Base Camp concept is viable.

“The Moon has always been the gateway to get to Mars,” he said. “The big focus is to make sure we don’t lose sight of Mars as we start to work the details of the moon.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...