The space agency has awarded $1-million contracts to two aerospace firms for research that could lead to the most ambitious planetary project ever attempted. NASA is considering sending an unmanned rover to Mars, which would wander around the surface of the planet and collect samples that would be rocketed back to Earth.
The Mars Rover Sample Return Mission is to be managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in a joint venture with the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Contracts were awarded last week to TRW Space & Technology Group in Redondo Beach and Martin Marietta in Denver for research studies on the concept. The parallel 13-month studies will seek to determine what type of spacecraft would be required to deliver the rover to the Red Planet and return the sample to Earth.
NASA hopes to carry out the project some time around 1996, to 1998 when Earth and Mars would be best aligned for the spacecraft trajectory. The cost of the project is yet to be determined. The Soviet Union is also considering a Mars sample return mission and has set a tentative target date for 1994-96.