Development of the Mars Global Surveyor -- the first in a series of low-cost spacecraft to explore the Martian environment -- will begin this month, leading up to a November 1996 launch and America's return to the red planet.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Dr. Edward C. Stone today announced the selection of the contractor, Martin Marietta Technologies Inc. of Denver, Colo., to build the light-weight orbiter after a rapid, industry-wide competition.

"Martin Marietta Technologies Inc. has a successful record of developing unique planetary spacecraft, including the highly successful Magellan Venus radar mapping mission and the Viking Mars landers," Stone said.

"This is the beginning of a new era in the exploration of the Martian environment and a new way of conducting business with our partners in industry," he said. "We are now on the way to building a viable, state-of-the-art spacecraft that will be ready for launch by November 1996 and assure us of many scientifically important results."

The Mars Global Surveyor will be readied for launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in just 28 months, beginning NASA's decade-long plan to launch orbiters and landers to Mars every 26 months through the year 2005. The rigorous timeline -- trimmed from an average five years or more in the past -- reflects NASA's new policy of streamlining the development and deployment of new planetary missions.

Performance objectives for the new orbiter called for a low mass, polar-orbiting spacecraft that could carry all but two of the eight science instruments that were on board the Mars Observer spacecraft when it was lost on Aug. 21, 1993. Project costs through 30 days after launch have been capped at $155 million.

The Mars Global Surveyor will provide high-resolution, global maps of the Martian surface, profile the planet's atmosphere and study the nature of the magnetic field. The orbiter will be small enough to be launched on a Delta expendable launch vehicle and will spend 10 months in transit to Mars before entering a polar orbit around the planet in September 1997.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory will manage the Mars Global Surveyor mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.

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