NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has selected Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo., for negotiations as the spacecraft contractor on the Mars Micromission -- the first in a series of small, low-cost piggyback missions to send science probes, instruments and communication relay satellites to the red planet.

The contract will be negotiated over the next two months and is contingent on funding approval by NASA for the Mars Micromission Project. This decision is expected by February 2000.

The Mars Micromission Project is planning to launch a series of a small 220-kilogram (485-pound) low-cost spacecraft to Mars as piggyback payloads on the French Ariane 5 rocket when it launches commercial communication satellites into an Earth-based geosynchronous transfer orbit. From Earth orbit, the Mars Micromission spacecraft will use on-board propulsion and an innovative trajectory involving Lunar and Earth flybys to send the spacecraft on the proper trajectory to Mars. The launch services will be provided through the NASA partnership with the French space agency, Centre National D'Etudes Spatiales (CNES), at no cost to NASA. Launch of the first Mars Micromission spacecraft is planned for spring of 2003 from the Ariane launch facilities in Kourou, French Guiana.

The design of the Mars Micromission spacecraft is based on a common spacecraft bus concept, which can be configured to deliver one or more science probes to the Martian atmosphere or carry extra propellant for orbit insertion into Mars orbit. The 2003 Mars Micromission would be a communication/navigation orbiter, the first of a constellation of Mars-orbiting satellites that would make up the Mars Network. The Mars Network is intended to dramatically increase the data returned to Earth from future landed or orbiting Mars missions by providing efficient relay communications, while also providing navigation capabilities like those of the Global Positioning Satellite system.

"The combination of the common spacecraft design and the piggyback launch is essential to achieve the Mars Micromission Project goals of frequent low-cost access to Mars," said David Lehman, the JPL project manager for the Mars Micromission. "We plan to be able to launch at least two Mars Micromission spacecraft during every Mars opportunity, about every two years. About half of these spacecraft are expected to carry out focused science investigations selected through competition, while the other half will be used to build up the Mars Network of communication relay and navigation satellites."

The Mars Micromission Project is managed by JPL for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C., as part of the ongoing Mars Surveyor Program. The purpose of the Mars Micromission is to increase the quality and quantity of the science and technology data from the Mars Surveyor Program. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.

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