WASHINGTON — NASA has selected seven companies to conduct studies of “out of the box” concepts for the agency’s Mars Sample Return (MSR) program that can deliver samples faster and cheaper than current plans.

NASA announced late June 7 it selected proposals from Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Quantum Space, SpaceX and Whittinghill Aerospace for 90-day studies of alternative MSR concepts. Each award is worth up to $1.5 million.

The agency released a request for proposals for those studies in mid-April after concluding that the current approach for returning samples would cost up to $11 billion and not be completed until as late as 2040. That assessment was a response to an independent assessment completed last September that found that MSR program was unlikely to meet existing cost and schedule targets.

“Mars Sample Return will be one of the most complex missions NASA has undertaken, and it is critical that we carry it out more quickly, with less risk, and at a lower cost,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement about the new studies.

NASA did not disclose details about the studies beyond the titles of the industry proposals. At least three of the proposals, from Aerojet, Northrop and Whittinghill, appear focused on the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the rocket that will launch the sample cache from the surface of Mars into orbit around the planet. The request for mission study proposals highlighted the MAV as one element of particular interest to NASA for studies.

“The Mars Ascent Vehicle is one of the key constraining factors in terms of driving complexity and cost,” said Sandra Connelly, NASA deputy associate administrator for science, at a June 5 meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board that included a discussion of MSR.

SpaceX, not surprisingly, is offering its Starship vehicle for MSR. Blue Origin is apparently looking at leveraging parts of the Artemis lunar exploration campaign; the request for proposals allowed companies to make use of elements of Artemis, like the Space Launch System and lunar Gateway, as government furnished equipment for MSR.

In addition to the seven industry studies, NASA is supporting similar MSR studies by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Applied Physics Laboratory and a group of NASA centers. Those studies will have a similar scope and schedule as the industry studies, Connelly said.

She said at the Space Studies Board meeting that NASA was maintain the schedule for the studies laid out in April. Work on the studies will formally begin in mid-July, with an interim report due in 45 days and a final report in 90 days. NASA will then review those studies to determine what changes, if any, to make to the MSR architecture. “Hopefully we’ll have the agency path forward in early 2025.”

NASA, in the request for proposals, included goals of both reducing the overall cost of MSR as well as peak annual spending, but offered no specific metrics. The agency also didn’t set a target for speeding up the delivery of samples. That was a deliberate choice, Connelly said, to ensure that companies proposed designs that were realistic rather than concepts intended to hit a specific cost or schedule target.

Connelly and other NASA officials acknowledged at the meeting that there is no guarantee that any of the studies, intended to solicit what the agency calls “out of the box” approaches to MSR, will successfully lower costs or accelerate schedules.

“This is the opportunity to hear what industry has to tell us” about reducing the cost and schedule of MSR, said Jeff Gramling, director of the MSR program at NASA Headquarters, at the Space Studies Board meeting. “This is the agency wanting to follow through and make sure we haven’t missed anything before we establish the baseline for this mission.”

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...