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Mars One unveils plan for private Red Planet robotic mission in 2018

Image: Mars lander
Mars One

Before the nascent Mars One venture launches humans on a one-way trip to the Red Planet, it wants to send a lander and an orbiter there in 2018 — and now it has signed up Lockheed Martin and Surrey Satellite Technology to work on concepts for the hardware.

The lander's design would be based on the Lockheed-built Phoenix Mars Lander, which was sent to Mars' north polar region in 2007 for a mission that scooped up and analyzed water ice. Similar experiments would be conducted during Mars One's mission, under the eye of a video camera. The mission would also demonstrate the use of thin-film solar panels to power the spacecraft.

"This will be the first private mission to Mars, and Lockheed Martin is very excited to have been contracted by Mars One," Ed Sedivy, chief engineer for civil space at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said in Tuesday's announcement of the mission. "This is an ambitious project, and we're already working on the mission concept study, starting with the proven design of Phoenix."

British-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., or SSTL, would produce a mission concept study for a demonstration communication satellite, designed to relay data and video from the lander back to Earth. The orbiter would also carry several student-designed payloads to Mars.

"This study gives us an unprecedented opportunity to take our tried and tested approach and apply it to Mars One's imaginative and exhilarating challenge of sending humans to Mars through private investment," SSTL's executive chairman, Martin Sweeting, said in the announcement.

Mars One's current contracts with Lockheed Martin and SSTL cover the concept studies, but not the detailed design, construction and launch of the spacecraft. That would have to be the focus of follow-up deals. "The value of the current contract with Lockheed Martin is worth just over $250,000," Bas Lansdorp, Mars One's co-founder and CEO, told NBC News in an email. He said SSTL's contract amounts to €60,000, or $82,500.

The launch vehicle for the mission has not been selected, but Lansdorp pointed out that NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander was sent to the Red Planet by United Launch Alliance's Delta 2 rocket.

Missions rescheduled
In Tuesday's announcement, Lansdorp said he was "very excited" to have the two companies on Mars One's team. "Both are significant players in their field of expertise and have outstanding track records," he said. "These will be the first private spacecraft to Mars, and their successful arrival and operation will be a historic accomplishment."

Mars One had originally planned the preparatory lander mission for 2016, but rescheduled it two years later to provide more time for spacecraft development and the educational initiatives. 

The robotic missions would serve as precursors for Mars One's more ambitious goal: a commercially funded, reality-TV-based competition that would select the first colonists to be sent to Mars. Lansdorp told reporters that the first four-person mission is currently slated for liftoff in 2024 and a landing on Mars in 2025 — again, two years later than originally planned.

Thousands of people have already applied to participate in the competition, and Lansdorp said potential contestants would be told by the end of the year whether they'll move on to the next round.

Funding sources
Mars One's financial model depends on attracting sponsorships and partnerships for the TV shows as well as the actual space missions. The Dutch-based venture estimates it would take $6 billion to mount the first human mission to Mars, with each follow-up journey costing $4 billion.

"We have very good discussions with sponsors and partners going on," Lansdorp said in his email to NBC News. "We have noticed a big positive change in the tone of the discussions since we started talking about the very concrete 2018 lander. We're in advanced negotiations with a major studio for an overall deal for film and television properties."

Lansdorp declined to name names or say how much money Mars One has raised so far, either through sponsorships or through the fees that were sent in by applicants for the astronaut competition.

In conjunction with Tuesday's announcement, Mars One launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising $400,000 by Jan. 25. Contributors will be given opportunities to send digitized messages or passport-type pictures to Mars, attend launch events, or receive T-shirts, posters and other goodies.

More about Mars missions:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.