Mars One, the Dutch organization that has proposed sending humans to Mars on commercially-funded one-way trips, announced yesterday that it will be holding a press conference in Washington on December 10 to make an announcement “regarding the first private robotic mission to Mars.” That announcement will be made jointly with Lockheed Martin and “Surrey Satellite Systems Limited” (an apparent reference to Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., a British company best known as a leading developer of small satellites.) Mars One will also use the press conference to “share new information on its public involvement activities leading up to this mission.”
The idea of Mars One doing a robotic Mars mission as some kind of precursor to its later human missions is not new. The Mars One architecture calls for a 2016 “demonstration mission” that would land on Mars to perform a “proof of concept for some of the technologies that are important for a human mission.” Mars One also proposes sending a communications relay orbiter in that same launch window.
In an interview during the Humans To Mars (H2M) Summit in Washington in May, Mars One founder Bas Lansdorp said that Mars One had been in discussions with Lockheed about the mission. “We can do a mission with a copy of hardware that has already been used,” he said, suggesting as one possibility the landing platform used for NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, which landed on Mars in January 2004. “We’re getting in contact with Lockheed. We’re doing that, but it’s still preliminary discussions that are going on.” At that time, he said, the use of such hardware was a backup to doing a mission with hardware closer to what they want to use for later crewed missions, which make use of capsules derived from SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Lansdorp said in May they were in discussions about using SpaceX hardware for that 2016 mission, but had no contract in place with them yet.
Beyond the technical challenges of mounting a mission in about two years—the launch window opens in early 2016—is how much such a mission would cost, and Mars One would fund it. The least expensive (and successful) recent Mars lander mission was NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander, which cost $386 million including launch. It made significant use of hardware built for a 2001 Mars lander mission that was cancelled after the Mars Polar Lander failure, lowering its cost. (The British Beagle 2 lander, which hitched a ride to Mars on ESA’s Mars Express orbiter mission, cost about £50 million (US$80 million), but crashed.) As the Google Lunar X PRIZE teams have demonstrated, raising even tens of millions of dollars for a lunar lander mission is difficult; raising significantly more for a Mars mission, on a very tight schedule, will be even more demanding.