Nasa has selected six US companies to help develop prototypes and concepts of deep space habitats for future manned missions to Mars.
Habitation systems provide a safe place for humans to live as we move beyond Earth on our journey to Mars, Nasa said.
"Nasa is on an ambitious expansion of human spaceflight, including the journey to Mars, and we're utilising the innovation, skill and knowledge of the both the government and private sectors," said Jason Crusan, director of Nasa's Advanced Exploration Systems.
"The next human exploration capabilities needed beyond the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule are deep space, long duration habitation and in-space propulsion," said Crusan.
"We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth," he said.
The selected companies are Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems and NanoRacks.
The six partners will have up to about 24 months to develop ground prototypes and conduct concept studies for deep space habitats.
Nasa has estimated that the combined total of all the awards, covering work in 2016 and 2017, will be about $65 million.
Selected partners are required to contribute at least 30 percent of the cost of the overall proposed effort.
The ground prototypes will be used for three primary purposes: supporting integrated systems testing, human factors and operations testing, and to help define overall system functionality.
These are important activities as they help define the design standards, common interfaces, and requirements while reducing risks for the final flight systems that will come after this phase.
The selections are part of a phased approach that will catalyse commercial investment in low-Earth orbit and lead to an operational deep space habitation capability for missions in the area of space near the moon, which will serve as the proving ground for Mars during the 2020s.
These missions will demonstrate human, robotic and spacecraft operations in a true deep space environment that is still relatively close to Earth and validate technologies for the longer journey to Mars.
The activities of these awards will inform the acquisition and deployment approach for the next phase of flight systems for deep space including important aspects, such as standards and interfaces, module configurations, and options for deployment.