Impulse and Relativity target 2026 for launch of first Mars landing mission

WASHINGTON — Two companies are preparing for the 2026 launch of what they believe will be the first commercial robotic Mars landing mission, the start of what the companies plan to be a regular series of such missions.

Impulse Space and Relativity Space announced plans for the landing mission in July, with Impulse leading the development of the spacecraft itself and Relativity providing the launch on its developing Terran R rocket. At the time, they proposed launching the mission in the next window for Mars missions in late 2024.

However, in a presentation at the recent Humans to Mars Summit, executives from both companies said the mission is scheduled to launch in 2026. They did not disclose the reason for the delay, but Relativity Space announced in April that a redesigned version of the Terran R rocket will make its debut in 2026, two years later than previously planned.

While the launch of the first Mars mission may have failed, the companies said at the conference that they are committed to flying a series of these commercial landing missions, creating what Josh Brost, senior vice president of revenue operations at Relativity, called ” constant supply chain to Mars.”

That means flying missions at every launch opportunity approximately two years apart. “We’ll take the window every 2.2 years and fly at least one mission,” said Barry Matsumori, director of operations for Impulse Space. He said companies would offer a catalog of different payload options, “and that catalog will drive the missions that we actually do.”

They argued that having a frequent series of missions will allow for new, lower-cost science, including the ability to relay payloads. “By making transport to Mars more accessible, you open up that iteration loop that can lead to breakthroughs that simply couldn’t have been previously envisioned,” said Brost.

Matsumori added that he also saw interest from commercial customers, such as those transporting payloads for marketing purposes. The companies have yet to disclose any customers or the price of payloads on the lander.

The companies also shared few technical details about the lander, but noted that they plan to leverage designs and technologies developed for NASA’s InSight Mars lander, such as its heat shield. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” said Brost. “Designing a blank lander is an insane and monumental feat of engineering.”

Impulse is making progress on the necessary thrust for the lander. The company announced on May 10 that it has completed qualifying testing of Saiph, a five-pound thruster, for use on its first mission to low Earth orbit, scheduled for launch in October. That booster will also control the Mars probe’s maneuvers during its cruise to the planet, Matsumori said.

Impulse is also working on the Rigel, which will produce 180 pounds of thrust, which will be used to land on Mars. “The first thing that all space vehicles start with is the propulsion systems, and that’s a challenge we’re very comfortable with,” he said.

Companies see NASA as a potential customer for these probes. “We hope that our own government, NASA, can take advantage of what we are doing,” Matsumori said, “so that they don’t worry about transportation, but about science itself.”

NASA has expressed an interest in eventually purchasing commercial services for science missions to Mars. A draft robotic Mars exploration strategy released by NASA in March opened the door to procuring services for science missions to Mars in a manner analogous to the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program for robotic lunar missions.

“There’s no shortage of interested companies,” said Eric Ianson, director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, during a March 30 presentation on the strategy. “The real question is, do they have the capability to do this job?”

The companies have said they want to demonstrate with their landing mission that there are companies interested and capable of taking on missions to Mars. “Our long-term vision is to be one of the companies that makes a permanent presence on Mars possible,” said Brost.

That’s a goal long associated with SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, who often talks about making humanity multiplanetary. “In recent years there has really been a loud commercial voice talking about Mars,” said Brost, alluding to SpaceX. “But for Mars to really happen and be affordable and sustainable and all those things, it doesn’t take a company. It takes dozens or hundreds. You need lots of different people working on different parts of the problem set.”

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