WASHINGTON — NASA expects to have a better understanding by this summer of potential commercial partnerships to support future Mars science missions.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory issued a request for proposals Jan. 29 for “commercial service studies” for future robotic Mars mission concepts. The studies, with a value of $200,000 or $300,000, would be carried out over 12 weeks.

The studies are intended to examine four specific design reference missions to explore commercial opportunities to support Mars exploration: delivery of small payloads of up to 20 kilograms to Mars orbit, delivery of large payloads of up to 1,250 kilograms to Mars orbit, services to provide high-resolution imaging of the Martian surface and communications relay services between Mars and Earth.

The studies are linked to a draft strategy for future Mars exploration that NASA released nearly a year ago. That “Exploring Mars Together” strategy outlined future robotic missions that NASA would send to Mars after the Mars Sample Return program. That included, NASA said at the time, opportunities for commercial partnerships in additional to conventional NASA-led missions.

“We’re really interested to see what the commercial sector can provide from a commercial standpoint,” said Eric Ianson, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, during a presentation at the March 4 meeting of the agency’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee. “We’re intending to make multiple selections for these studies to assess cost, feasibility and technological maturity of potential services at Mars.”

Proposals were due to JPL Feb. 27, and Ianson said that the agency was evaluating them with a goal of making awards in April. That would allow results of the studies to be published “some time in the summer,” he said.

Some of the studies are intended to examine how partnerships could address looming gaps in NASA’s Mars infrastructure. “Our Mars relay network is aging and we are concerned about being able to maintain the capability of providing data relay back to Earth from the Martian surface,” he said. Those services are currently provided by science orbiters that have been in service well beyond their prime missions.

The same is true for high-resolution imaging currently provided by the HiRISE camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been at Mars for nearly two decades. “We’d like to find out what else industry may be able to do in this area.”

The studies would address not just the technical feasibility of those proposed missions but also their commercial viability. Ianson cited data relay as a prime example of that. “Is there an interest in the commercial sector in being able to provide services related to comm relay at Mars, and if so, what would that cost, what would it look like, how would we develop that public-private partnership?”

The question of commercial viability was on the minds of committee members, who drew parallels to NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) effort. They questioned if there would be sufficient non-NASA interest in such missions to make commercial partnerships work.

“Mars may have some similarities, it may have some differences” from CLPS, he said. One of the goals of the studies is to see how a public-private partnership could be structured “such that it is beneficial to both sides.”

“I’d be careful about referring to it as ‘Mars CLPS,’” he added, noting that the studies won’t cover landing payloads on Mars. “I think we are a long way away from that.”

“We’re not talking about just taking CLPS and moving it to Mars,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, at the meeting. “It’s a different business model. But, the idea of a service approach is something that’s worth exploring.”

In parallel to the commercial studies, NASA is working to refine the Exploring Mars Together strategy it rolled out last year. That strategy has existed primarily in charts and presentations, Ianson said. “We’ve received lots of comments from the community. We’re folding them into the plan,” he said, with a formal written version of the strategy to be completed this summer.

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...