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NASA Awards Lockheed Martin Space Contract for Mars Sample Return Rocket

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February 7, 2022

NASA has announced awarding a contract to Lockheed Martin Space of Littleton, Colo., to build the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a small lightweight rocket to launch rock, sediment, and atmospheric samples from the surface of Mars. The space agency said the award brings it closer to the first robotic round trip to bring samples safely to Earth through the Mars Sample Return Program.

“This groundbreaking endeavor is destined to inspire the world when the first robotic round-trip mission retrieves a sample from another planet – a significant step that will ultimately help send the first astronauts to Mars,” said Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator. “America’s investment in our Mars Sample Return program will fulfill a top priority planetary science goal and demonstrate our commitment to global partnerships, ensuring NASA remains a leader in exploration and discovery.”

Set to become the first rocket fired off another planet, the MAV is a crucial part of a campaign to retrieve samples collected from the Perseverance rover, and deliver them to Earth for advanced study. The Sample Retrieval Lander, another important part of the campaign, would carry the MAV to Mars’ surface, landing near or in Jezero Crater to gather the samples cached by Perseverance. The samples would be returned to the lander, which would serve as the launch platform for the MAV. WIth the sample container secured, the MAV would then launch.

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The Mars Sample Return program includes robotic coordination between the Persevereance rover, the Fetch Rover, Mars Ascent Vehicle and Sample Retrieval Lander.

Once it reaches Mars orbit, the container would be captured by a European Space Agency (ESA) Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft, outfitted with NASA’s Capture, Containment and Return System payload. The spacecraft is expected to bring the samples to Earth safely and securely in the early- to mid-2030s.

“Committing to the Mars Ascent Vehicle represents an early and concrete step to hammer out the details of this ambitious project not just to land on Mars, but to take off from it,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. “We are nearing the end of the conceptual phase for this Mars Sample Return mission, and the pieces are coming together to bring home the first samples from another planet. Once on Earth, they can be studied by state-of-the-art tools too complex to transport into space.”

NASA said that returning a sample is complicated, with complex development challenges for the MAV. It needs to be robust enough to withstand the harsh Mars environment and adaptable enough to work with multiple spacecraft. It also must be small enough to fit inside the Sample Retrieval Lander, which is scheduled to launch no earlier than 2026.

Lockheed Martin Space said it will provide multiple MAV test units and a flight unit. The contract includes designing, developing, testing, and evaluating the integrated MAV system, and designing and developing the rocket’s ground support equipment. The cost-plus-fixed-fee contract has a potential value of $194 million, with a performance period beginning Feb. 25 and extending six years.

For more details on the Mars Sample Return program, visit this NASA website.


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