Lockheed Martin has been chosen by NASA to develop a tiny rocket that will carry materials gathered by the Perseverance rover into the orbit around Mars. Lockheed Martin was given a contract worth up to $194 million by NASA on February 7 to create the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), which is a key component of NASA’s and the European Space Agency’s broader Mars Sample Return campaign.

A NASA-led Sample Retrieval Lander will take the MAV to Mars, together with an ESA-developed rover. Perseverance cached specimens of Martian rock and regolith, which will be collected by that rover and returned to the lander. Some samples may be returned to the lander by Perseverance on its own.

The samples will be put into a (container) box on the MAV, that will take off and deploy the container in the orbit around Mars. Using a NASA-provided mechanism, an ESA-led Earth Return Orbiter is going to capture the container and return it to Earth.

The contract covers the entire MAV as well as its ground support equipment’s design, development, testing, and assessment. NASA and Lockheed did not give any other technical specifics regarding the design, but in March 2021, NASA awarded Northrop Grumman a contract worth up to $84.5 million to deliver both the second-stage and first-stage solid-fuel motors meant for the MAV.

In a statement regarding the MAV award, Thomas Zurbuchen, who works as the NASA associate administrator for science, said, “Committing to the Mars Ascent Vehicle is an early and concrete step to hammer out the details of this enormous effort not merely to land on Mars, but to lift off from it.” “For this mission-Mars Sample Return, we’re nearing the conclusion of the conceptual phase, and the parts are starting to fall into place to bring the first samples from some other planet home.”

At a meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group advisory committee on February 2, NASA officials provided limited updates on the status of that conceptual phase of development, which also included presentations on other current and planned Mars missions. A systems criteria assessment for the Mars Sample Return has indeed been pushed out to April, according to officials there.

This examination will focus on strategic questions about the campaign’s execution, such as timetables and critical technical features. In November 2020, an independent review recommended delaying the unveiling of the Earth Return Orbiter and Sample Retrieval Lander from the year 2026 to 2028, evaluating if the lander should be broken into 2 separate landers, and powering the lander and landers with a radioisotope thermoelectric generator instead of solar power.

NASA has yet to make a conclusion on these matters. The Sample Retrieval Lander is expected to launch no earlier than 2026, according to NASA. In a February 7 tweet in response to a question concerning Mars Sample Return triggered by the MAV deal announcement, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory stated that “the tentative schedule is as early as 2028” for launching the lander and that “samples would return back in the early to mid-2030s.”

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