NASA is looking for ideas from the U.S. space industry for an advanced Mars orbiter that the agency hopes to launch in the 2020s. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are among the companies expressing initial interest.
The space agency already has a series of orbiters at Mars, although some of them are aging and need replacement. Also, older orbiters cannot handle the higher bandwidth necessary for not just data but voice, video and other critical functions that could later support human exploration of the red planet.
"The orbiters play a key role in that communication cycle and provides us a critical infrastructure that we use today and will continue to use into the future — all the way through the time that humans will be exploring Mars," said Jim Green, NASA's planetary science division director.
According to a NASA statement last week, the new orbiter would provide high-resolution imaging and advanced communications capabilities. It could also offer optical communication technology, which could increase transmission speed and allow the agency to carry more data and have greater flexibility for missions. Also, the future orbiter may use high-power solar electric propulsion to improve overall performance and capabilities in deep space.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory plans to award multiple concept study subcontracts with a price of $400,000 per subcontract in June. The companies selected in the process would have four months to complete the concept studies for the spacecraft.