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Mars lander
An artist’s conception shows Lockheed Martin’s lander on Mars. (Lockheed Martin Illustration)

Lockheed Martin has fleshed out its picture for sending astronauts to the Red Planet by adding a refuelable lander and a water-based fuel supply chain to its “Mars Base Camp” mission architecture.

The system, updated today at the International Astronautical Congress in Australia, could make use of resources provided by asteroid mining companies such as Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources.

Danielle Richey, a space exploration architect at Lockheed Martin, said the updated Mars Base Camp concept could help NASA “start exploring the Martian system in about a decade.”

Although NASA has said it wants to start sending astronauts to Mars and its moons by the 2030s, the space agency isn’t yet anywhere close to selecting any detailed plan to get there.

Right now, NASA’s farthest focus for human space exploration is the potential establishment of a Deep Space Gateway, which could be built in the 2020s in the vicinity of the moon and serve as a staging platform for missions to Mars. This week, NASA signed an agreement with Russia’s space agency to study the idea.

Lockheed Martin says its Mars Base Camp — basically, a space station that’s equipped with a propulsion system — could be built at the Deep Space Gateway.

Mars Base Camp concept
This schematic provides details about components in Lockheed Martin’s Mars Base Camp mission architecture. Click on the image for a larger version. (Lockheed Martin Graphic)

Robotic tugs powered by solar electric propulsion systems could pre-position key components and fuel in Martian orbit. Then the Mars Base Camp and a crew of six astronauts would make their months-long trip, spanning tens of millions of miles.

The propellants for the Mars station’s engines would be liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, produced by splitting water molecules. The required H2O could be sent up from Earth, or provided by mining operations on the moon or on near-Earth asteroids.

Planetary Resources and another venture, Deep Space Industries, are both working on systems that could start harvesting water ice from suitable asteroids starting in the 2020s.

“Water is everywhere in the solar system,” said Tim Cichan, another Lockheed Martin space exploration architect involved in today’s presentation. “Anywhere we want to send humans, water is there. It really is the fuel for exploration, and not just for making hydrogen and oxygen rocket fuel, but also for the astronauts to drink and to create oxygen for them to breathe.”

Cichan said “we’re really excited” about fostering the kind of water-based space economy envisioned by Planetary Resources.

Once the station enters Martian orbit, astronauts could use an Orion excursion module to make low-gravity trips — for example, “to explore the moons Phobos and Deimos … hopefully finding something like water ice,” Richey said.

Lockheed Martin’s concept calls for using the single-stage lander to send up to four astronauts on sorties to the Martian surface. The lander would have enough supplies of hydrogen and oxygen on board to support a two-week stay on the surface, followed by a rocket-powered return to the orbiting station.

The mission concept leaves the door open for harvesting water ice from deposits on Mars or its moons, but the lander wouldn’t have to depend on Martian resources for its trips, Lockheed Martin’s Rob Chambers said.

Cichan said the lander could also be used for missions heading to the moon’s surface from the Deep Space Gateway.

Today’s presentation didn’t address the potential cost of a 1,000-day mission organized along the lines of the Mars Base Camp concept, and there are likely to be many more proposals for Mars mission architectures in the years to come.

Hours after Lockheed Martin’s IAC presentation in Australia, SpaceX founder Elon Musk was due to update his own vision for sending thousands of settlers to Mars starting in the 2020s.

To watch Musk’s presentation, scheduled at 9:30 p.m. PT, head on over to http://www.spacex.com/mars.

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