Enlarge / An artist’s concept of a Mars Ascent Vehicle orbiting the red planet. (credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA announced Friday that it will award contracts to seven companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, to study how to transport rock samples from Mars more cheaply back to Earth.

The space agency put out a call to industry in April to propose ideas on how to return the Mars rocks to Earth for less than $11 billion and before 2040, the cost and schedule for NASA’s existing plan for Mars Sample Return (MSR). A NASA spokesperson told Ars the agency received 48 responses to the solicitation and selected seven companies to conduct more detailed studies.

Each company will receive up to $1.5 million for their 90-day studies. Five of the companies chosen by NASA are among the agency’s roster of large contractors, and their inclusion in the study contracts is no surprise. Two other winners are smaller businesses.

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