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Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter relaying data. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

NASA says it’s selected five aerospace companies, including Boeing, to conduct concept studies for a Mars telecommunications orbiter that’s likely to launch in 2022. It’s also given the formal go-ahead for the final design of its long-planned 2020 Mars rover.

In addition to Boeing, the companies contracted for the four-month concept studies include Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Northrop Grumman, Orbital ATK and Space Systems/Loral. The concept studies will be managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“We’re excited to continue planning for the next decade of Mars exploration,” Geoffrey Yoder, NASA’s acting associate administrator for science, said in today’s announcement of the contracts.

The orbiter mission would provide advanced telecommunication capabilities as well as global high-resolution imaging of Mars. NASA’s move follows up on recommendations made by the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group.

NASA currently relays data from the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers on Mars via the Mars Odyssey orbiter and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter – which were launched in 2001 and 2005 respectively.

The space agency has the MAVEN orbiter on standby to serve as a relay in case of an emergency, but it really wants a new spacecraft that takes advantage of solar electric propulsion as well as advances in imaging and communication technology.

Earlier this week, NASA said it’s ready to proceed with final design and fabrication of an advanced rover that would be launched in the summer of 2020 and land on Mars in February 2021. The rover’s mission will be to probe Martian rocks for evidence of past life, and collect samples to be stored up and potentially returned to Earth.

2020 Mars rover
This schematic comes from computer-assisted-design work on NASA’s 2020 Mars rover. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

The rover for the $1.5 billion Mars 2020 mission will be built on the same basic framework used for Curiosity, but it will include an entirely new subsystem for sample collection and storage: A coring drill on the rover’s robotic arm would extract samples of soil and ground-up rock. Those samples would be placed in about 30 storage tubes, which would be deposited at select locations for retrieval during a follow-up mission.

The rover would also have a suite of cameras and a microphone to record the sights and sounds of the spacecraft’s entry, descent and landing. “This will be a great opportunity for the public to hear the sounds of Mars for the first time,” Mars 2020 deputy project manager Matt Wallace said in a news release.

Technically speaking, the rover has just passed the third of four key decision points on the way to launch, known as Phase C or KDP-C. It still has to go through the fourth milestone, KDP-D, which clears the way for system assembly, testing and launch.

The long-term goal of NASA’s Mars exploration program is to assess whether the Red Planet ever harbored life, and to send astronauts to Mars and its moons beginning in the 2030s.

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