Taking a step closer to realising its ambitious sample return programme after the touchdown of the Mars Perseverance rover, NASA has awarded a key contract to Northrop Grumman Systems of Elkton, Maryland. As part of this Mars Ascent Propulsion System (MAPS) contract, Northrop Grumman Systems will provide propulsion support and products for spaceflight missions at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, the US space agency said on Thursday.
The cost-plus, fixed-fee contract has a potential mission services value of $60.2 million and a maximum potential value of $84.5 million, NASA said.
Work on Mars Ascent Propulsion System begins immediately with a 14-month base period, followed by two option periods that may be exercised at NASA's discretion.
In the next steps of the Mars Sample Return campaign, NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) will provide components for a Sample Retrieval Lander mission and an Earth Return Orbiter mission.
The Sample Retrieval Lander mission will deliver a Sample Fetch Rover and Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) to the surface of Mars.
Marshall is responsible for the MSR Programme's MAV element, which is a two-stage vehicle that will be a critical element in supporting MSR to retrieve and return the samples that the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover will collect for return to Earth.
The Martian environment will be a significant factor in the design, development, manufacturing, testing, and qualification of two different solid rocket motors with multiple deliveries of each.
Through the MAPS contract, Northrop Grumman will provide the propulsion systems for the MAV, as well as other supporting equipment and logistics services, NASA said.
Bringing Mars samples back to Earth will allow scientists across the world to examine the specimens using sophisticated instruments too large and too complex to send to Mars, and will allow future generations to study them using technology not yet available.
Curating the samples on Earth will allow the science community to test new theories and models as they are developed, much as the Apollo samples returned from the Moon have done for decades.