NASA has chosen five new space engineering companies to develop a concepts for the next-gen Mars orbiter. The concepts will be developed in line with the upcoming journey to Mars.

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NASA sets eyes on 2030 Mars mission

In a press release, acting Associate Administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Geoffrey Yoder said, “We’re excited to continue planning for the next decade of Mars exploration.”

With this project, NASA aims to develop new generation of Mars orbiter that will support its mission of sending man to Mars in 2030 and support other human missions to the Red Planet. The five commercial aerospace technology companies that will be awarded by NASA are: Orbital ATK, Lockheed Martin, Space Systems/Loral, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. According to the New Scientist, all these companies are tasked to develop a concept study for a spacecraft in time for NASA’s 2020 mission.

For such orbiters, telecommunications and global high-resolution imaging systems are of immense importance. NASA aims to develop the best concept technology that is capable of providing the best and most efficient communications, imaging and operational systems for its 2020 mission.

Previously, the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group issued research detailing the scientific objective for a Mars orbiter. This research will help the five companies in the development process. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is heading the orbiter concept project.

One key aspects of the new spacecraft

NASA’s new spacecraft will be special in at least one way: it will make use of solar-electric propulsion. This system harnesses the sun’s energy to push the spacecraft using the acceleration of ions.

“The orbiter concept under study would take advantage of U.S. industry’s technology capacities by using solar electric propulsion to provide flexible launch, mission and orbit capabilities,” reads the press release.

This technology, which is still in its early days, is already being used by a few Earth-orbiting satellites. Using this fuel-efficient technology, satellites will be able to travel close to the surface of Mars, which will help them take high-resolution images of potential landing sites. It will also help the spacecraft carry state-of-the-art systems to assist the work of ground crews.

Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters William Gerstenmaier said, “NASA’s strategy connects near-term activities and capability development to the journey to Mars and a future with a sustainable human presence in deep space.”

NASA’s project is in line with the launch of its new Mars 2020 rover, which will travel to Mars with better equipment to help researchers find signs of life on the Red Planet. Under its Mars mission, NASA aims to send humans to the planet by 2030. Along with the Mars 2020 rover, the agency also has plans to launch its Insight Lander in 2018.