The Race to Mars: Technologies Getting Us to The Red Planet

June 26, 2024
The Race to Mars: Technologies Getting Us to the Red Planet

Humanity’s quest for exploration has focused on Mars, representing a massive potential achievement in our history. With both space agencies and private companies targeting the “Red Planet,” the technological advancements necessary for this endeavor are above and beyond what we have accomplished before.

Government contracting mechanisms like the Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) Other Transaction Authority (OTA) are crucial in this effort. They enable small, Nontraditional space innovators to contribute cutting-edge technologies, thus ensuring the mission is driven by the finest ideas and innovations.

The United States’ Mars Mission Plan

The United States is spearheading efforts to reach Mars through a combination of government initiatives and private-sector collaboration.

For starters, NASA’s Artemis program, designed to return humans to the Moon, serves as a critical steppingstone for Mars exploration. For this mission, the Moon will be used as a testing ground for technologies and operations needed for long-duration missions.

Simultaneously, NASA is working on the Mars Sample Return mission in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring Martian samples back to Earth for detailed analysis.

Moreover, private companies like SpaceX are developing powerful launch systems and spacecraft, such as the Starship, to enable human landings on Mars. By leveraging these efforts, the U.S. aims to achieve a sustainable human presence on Mars.

The Technologies Paving the Way to Mars

Reaching Mars involves overcoming a myriad of technical challenges. Propulsion systems must be capable of long-duration space travel, and life support systems must sustain astronauts on another planet.

This means the technologies required are diverse and complex, requiring maturation from different types of innovators. Below are some of the key innovations driving the race to Mars: technology areas where innovation will be necessary to make Mars exploration a possibility.

Life Support and Habitat Technologies

Sustaining human life on Mars requires robust life support systems and habitats capable of withstanding the harsh Martian environment. This includes air and water recycling systems, radiation shielding and self-sustaining food production.

Autonomous Robotics and AI

The vast distance between Earth and Mars poses significant communication delays, making real-time control of rovers and other equipment impractical.

Autonomous robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are essential for conducting scientific research, maintaining equipment, and exploring the Martian surface. These technologies allow for greater autonomy and efficiency in operations, paving the way for human missions.

Advancements in AI capabilities in the U.S. are already largely underway. Through the Microelectronics Commons program, funded by the U.S. CHIPS and Science Act, eight regional prototyping Hubs are furthering microelectronics manufacturing capabilities in different technology areas, one of which is AI. The fortification of this technology in the U.S. means more advanced systems for space travel.

Advanced Propulsion Systems

Traditional chemical rockets are limited by the vast distances of interplanetary travel. Innovations in propulsion technologies, like Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) and electric propulsion, promise to reduce travel time and increase efficiency. NTP is a type of rocket propulsion that uses a nuclear reactor to heat a propellant, such as hydrogen, to high temperatures, while electric propulsion uses electrical energy to accelerate propellant to high speeds, producing thrust for spacecraft

These advanced systems could cut the journey to Mars from several months to just a few weeks, making human missions more feasible and less risky.

In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)

Transporting all the necessary supplies from Earth to Mars is not practical in the slightest. However, ISRU technologies aim to use the resources available on Mars, such as extracting water from the soil and producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere.

With these technologies, staying on Mars for extended periods of time becomes more and more possible.

Space Awareness

Having knowledge of where things are in space (space domain awareness) is vital for navigating through it. One of the top priorities for Space Force is building our space domain awareness, and this mission can help astronauts have a clean flight on their way to the red planet.

On this note, awarded to Northrop Grumman Corporation through the Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC), the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC) program was created to enhance our nation’s capabilities in Space Domain Awareness (SDA). The solutions created through DARC will be vital in creating a resilient space enterprise and will provide an operational leave-behind capability by 2025.

The Trip to Mars Propelled with SpEC

The rapid development of these technologies is not solely the domain of large, established companies. Many small, Non-traditional space innovators are at the forefront of these advancements. However, breaking into the government contracting space can be challenging for these smaller entities. This is where mechanisms like Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreements and the Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) come into play.

OTA agreements provide a flexible, streamlined contracting approach that allows the government to collaborate more effectively with innovative companies. Unlike traditional contracts, OTAs are designed to be less bureaucratic, enabling faster development and deployment of cutting-edge technologies.

SpEC facilitates a collaborative environment where small companies can contribute their unique solutions to the space industry. By lowering the barriers to entry, SpEC ensures that the best and brightest ideas are brought to the table. From advancing next-generation rocket testing to Space Situational Awareness, SpEC is always leveraging our community to further space endeavors.  

Our Commitment to the Mars Mission

At NSTXL, we are proud to be part of this transformative journey. As we look to the future, we are excited to see how these partnerships and innovations will bring us closer to setting foot on the Red Planet.

Join us on this incredible journey to Mars.  Together, we are making the impossible possible.

About SpEC

The Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) was created in 2017 to bridge the cultural gap between military buyers and commercial space startups and small businesses through Other Transaction Authorities (OTA). The OTA innovative contracting process allows SpEC to solicit bids from a mix of member companies including companies that have not previously done work with the Department of Defense. SSC recently awarded management of the SpEC OTA to NSTXL to expedite the contracting between government and industry. NSTXL is focused on building a network of innovators and creators across the most sought-after emerging technology fields.

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