Lockheed Martin Scores NASA Contract to Build Historic Mars Rocket

by TK Sanders

NASA just awarded a major government contract to Lockheed Martin’s space division. The manufacturing company will build a rocket designed to collect Mars samples. The rocket will also return to Earth after the journey with samples in tow, a first for the space exploration industry.

The “small, lightweight rocket” will be the first to take off from another planet. It will bring back “rock, sediment and atmospheric samples from the surface of the Red Planet,” NASA stated. The rocket will return sometime in the 2030s, or roughly a decade from now.

NASA’s Perseverance Rover has been exploring Mars and collecting samples from the planet since landing approximately one year ago. Now NASA needs a way to get those samples back to Earth.

How will the rocket help NASA explore Mars?

The goal of the mission is to find any traces of life, ancient or otherwise, on the Red Planet. Scientists can analyze Martian artifacts and sediments crudely from Earth. However, a rocket with cargo capabilities will provide much more opportunity for researchers. They’ll be able to better understand the nature of life in the galaxy.

The Lockheed Martin “Mars Ascent Vehicle” is valued at a staggering $194 million, according to NASA. Lockheed Martin needs to design a propulsion vessel that can withstand Martian elements and will travel for years on end without technical issues.

“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,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA headquarters in Washington, said.

NASA wants to launch the mini-rocket to Mars around 2026 at the earliest. Once on Mars, the rocket will deploy a small rover responsible for collecting the samples gathered and left behind by Perseverance. After the rover gathers the data and stores it safely within the hull of the rocket, NASA wants to lift back off the Mars surface — a first for space exploration.

Once the rocket and samples finds the Mars orbit, yet another vessel of some sort will pick it up in space and deliver it home to Earth. NASA, though, isn’t the only agency with skin in the game, here. The European Space Union is developing the second Mars rover as well as the final vessel which will collect the Lockheed Martin rocket from the orbit.

What is the first rover looking for on Mars?

The Mars Perseverance Rover began drilling into the surface of Mars last August. NASA previously published images of a small mound with a hole in its center next to the rover — the first ever dug into the Red Planet by a robot.

The rover landed on a portion of Mars called the Jezero Crater. Scientists believe the crater could have been a lake 3.5 billion years ago. If water existed there, then extraterrestrial life may have existed, as well.

NASA said it plans to bring around 30 samples back to Earth with the help of the new Lockheed Martin rocket.