SpaceX yesterday announced plans to land a Dragon capsule on an unpiloted test flight on Mars as early as 2018.
NASA would provide "technical support," in exchange for ''valuable'' entry, descent and landing data, the agency said in a statement.
SpaceX will use a powerful, as-yet-untried Falcon 9 heavy-lift booster, the "Red Dragon" spacecraft, a variant of the crew ferry craft SpaceX is developing to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The landing on the red planet would happen using eight Super Draco engines.
With the engines, a station-bound crew can escape a malfunctioning booster during the climb to space or to descend to a powered landing back on earth at the end of a mission.
"Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018," SpaceX said in a company tweet. "Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture, details to come."
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk had long supported the eventual colonisation of Mars and his plans to eventually send spacecraft to the red planet were no secret. Yesterday's announcement marked the first time the company had said when the first attempt might be made.
Without providing any details about the proposed unmanned test flight, he tweeted yesterday that "Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system. Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight."
According to commentators, landing a spacecraft or a robot that could then operate successfully on the Martian surface was so difficult that the US is the only country to have done it, and many attempts over the years had failed.
The partnership between SpaceX and NASA, which aims to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, comes as yet another example of the significant shift in the role NASA was playing in space exploration.
Even as it continued its own deep space missions, the agency had also spent years and billions of dollars, helping to support a robust commercial space industry, which it was increasingly partnering with to develop the technologies to explore the cosmos.
Getting to Mars, however, is exceedingly difficult. On average, it's 140 million miles from Earth, though the planets come to within about 35 million miles every 26 months.
But even under the best circumstances it takes months to get there. And the terrain of deep space is tremendously harsh. Skeptics think that despite its grand aspirations, NASA is nowhere close to getting humans there.
And of the 43 robotic missions to Mars, including flybys, attempted by four different countries, only 18 have been total successes.