The non-profit organization that hopes to found a permanent human settlement on Mars in 2025 said it hired two prominent aerospace companies to study the idea of sending an unmanned lander to the red planet in 2018.

Dutch-based Mars One is paying Lockheed Martin Corporation $256,000 to develop concepts for what would be the first privately funded expedition to Mars.

The aerospace and defense giant built the vehicle used in NASA's successful Phoenix Mars mission, launched in 2007.

The group also signed an $82,700 contract with Surrey Satellites Technology, a British firm that designs and builds small communications satellites.

"These missions are the first step in Mars One's overall plan of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars," the organization's co-founder and CEO, Bas Lansdorp, said Tuesday in Washington.

More than 200,000 people have applied to be part of the Mars colonization effort. The plan calls for settlers to voyage to the red planet and remain there, with no provision for returning to the earth.

The engineer who managed the Phoenix Mars project for Lockheed Martin said it makes sense to use the Phoenix design as a template for a new lander.

"It's a proven delivery system. The technology has been demonstrated. The team is in place," Ed Sedivy said. EFE