NASA has selected four industry teams to begin studies for a Mars sample return mission which could be launched in 2011, rather than the originally planned 2014.

The agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the Mars exploration programme, has awarded small study contracts to teams led by Ball Aerospace & Technologies, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and TRW.

Under the six-month, $1 million contracts, the teams will formulate a range of potential ways to implement a robotic mission to return rock and soil samples from Mars. The studies will help identify technology demonstrations needed and infrastructure required to perform the mission.

NASA plans to select the best implementation scenarios for further development. The agency's fiscal year 2002 budget requests increased funding for the Mars exploration programme to bring forward the sample return mission from 2014 to 2011.

The revamped Mars programme is based around a series of orbiters and landers that will narrow the choice of location for an eventual sample return mission. The 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter is on its way to the Red Planet and two rovers are scheduled to follow in 2003. A high-resolution reconnaissance orbiter is planned for 2005 and an extended-range rover for 2007. Another orbiter will follow in 2009, paving the way for a sample return mission in 2011.

Source: Flight International