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NASA Awards Lockheed Martin Mars Ascent Vehicle Contract

Sample Mission Will Launch Earthbound Samples from Martian Surface to Spacecraft Above

Lockheed is the lucky winner of the contract to design, develop, and produce the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which will be a key part of the Mars Sample Return mission currently in the works with NASA and the EASA. The mission hopes to deliver rock and soil samples collected on the Martian surface back to Earth, a tall order that requires a complex series of spacecraft and landers.

Under the contract, Lockheed will provide multiple MAV test units with a prototype flight unit. Their purview includes designing, developing, testing, and evaluating the integrated MAV system, and designing and developing of the rocket’s ground support equipment. The cost-plus-fixed-fee Mars Ascent Vehicle Integrated System (MAVIS) contract has a potential value of $194 million. The performance period begins sometime before February 25 and will extend 6 years. 

Under the plan, NASA will send a lander mission to the Jezero Crater, where another lander will have already collected and cached samples for retrieval. The lander will haul the ascent vehicle, along with an EASA sample fetcher rover that will grab the stored samples and load them into the ascent vehicle. The MAV will then be launched from the surface and deploy a container holding the sample into Martian orbit. Once the container reaches Mars orbit, the sample carrier will be captured by an Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft equipped with NASA's capture, containment, and return system payload. That craft would bring the samples to Earth by the early to mid 2030s. By all appearances, the endeavor will be a delicate ballet, with multiple points of failure.

The MAV is an important piece of the puzzle, being vital to leave the surface of Mars while maintaining navigation to accurately track its designated target point. “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,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “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.”

“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. “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.”



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