A Dutch non-profit foundation that hopes to start colonizing Mars in 2025 has hired Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd. to run concept studies of unmanned precursor spacecraft that could fly as early as 2018.

If the youthful Mars One organization succeeds in the first step of its plan, students from the grade-school level on up could see their experiments on Mars before the decade is out, and companies willing to sponsor the mission could be the first to recruit the best and brightest participants in the competitions the foundation hopes to run for payload space on Mars.

The first privately funded mission to Mars already has drawn 200,000 applicants from potential Mars colonists and contributions from 80 countries. Contributors may get to vote on competition winners and other decisions if the project takes off, according to the organizers.

Relying on a mixture of crowd-sourcing, merchandizing and philanthropy to raise funds, Mars One is paying Lockheed Martin $250,000 for its work, while Surrey will receive €60,000 ($83,000). Lockheed Martin will analyze how it can use technology developed for the 2007 Mars Phoenix mission to build a low-cost lander to deliver the technology payloads, a camera and student experiments to the surface for Mars One.

At the same time, Surrey will develop concepts for a small communications spacecraft designed for a stationary “Mars-synchronous” orbit over the lander. The lander/satellite configuration “will allow a live video feed from the surface of Mars to Earth,” says Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp. “We expect this will bring Mars a lot closer to Earth. Anyone can log into our website and see what's it is like on Mars.”

Edward Sedivy of Lockheed Martin, who was the company's program manager on Mars Phoenix, says the study will tackle such issues as whether it would be best to launch the lander and orbiter together—the favored going-in position—and how to phase their arrivals at Mars. Various launch vehicles will be considered, and the payload capability will be sized in the studies, he says.

Martin Sweeting, the head of Surrey Satellites in the U.K., says his studies will be based on work the company has done with Europe's Galileo navigation satellite constellation and the Giove pathfinder element for Galileo.

Mars One has baselined as payloads on the unmanned lander, an in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) experiment and a test of thin-film solar arrays for future human missions. Once the spacecraft concept studies are complete, the Mars One foundation will issue a call for proposals to build the experiments, Lansdorp says. The ISRU experiment would use a robotic arm to scoop nearby soil and attempt to extract liquid water from it. The thin-film array, possibly extended from the lander's top deck on inflatable tubes, would provide extra power for the lander in addition to the arrays based on Phoenix technology (see illustration, page 25).

“This is just our first artist's impression of what it will be, depending on the findings from Lockheed Martin on how much space we have available,” says Lansdorp. “It might be bigger; it might be smaller; it might be a lot smaller so we will have to wait for those results before we can open the proposals [for competition]. But we hope it will be as large as possible, because additional power will prolong the lifetime and add capabilities.”

Like the overhead direct-data link through the Surrey satellite, the technology experiments will be intended to support long-term plans to settle humans on Mars, four at a time, in habitats that can be extended with the arrival of a new mission with each planetary launch window. Under current plans, the first Mars crew would land in 2025, Lansdorp says. However, that date already has slipped by one 26-month launch window, as has the initial robotic landing announced Dec. 10.

Overall, the project organizers expect the first landing of a four-person habitat will cost about $6 billion. In addition to their sponsorship plans, merchandizing the usual online T-shirts and other collectables, and small crowdsourced contributions, the foundation has a for-profit subsidiary that can market the rights to a video feed of human activities on Mars. Lansdorp notes that the Olympic Games have been pulling down $4 billion from television rights in recent years.

In addition to the student experiments and technology demonstrations, the door is open for suggestions of other payloads that could ride to Mars on the lander, Lansdorp says.