Mars One, the project that aims to put a group of colonists on Mars in 2025, is poised to take its first big step forward. Today, the Mars One foundation announced partnerships with Lockheed Martin and satellite company SSTL for an exploratory mission in 2018, potentially sending the first private spacecraft to Mars. Instead of launching a crew of astronauts, as per the final goal, this mission is meant as a proof of concept — and, likely, a way to whet the public's attention for Mars One's eventual astronaut reality TV show.

The two partners will each be working with Mars One on a different project. Lockheed Martin will be contributing a modified version of the Phoenix lander it sent to Mars in 2007, though the new craft is still in the conceptual stage. It's meant to perform experiments similar to those of NASA's probes, scooping soil samples, extracting water from the soil, and testing the deployment of solar panels. It's also, however, taking the Curiosity rover's social campaign up a few notches, planning a "live" Martian video feed for viewers on Earth. That video will be sent through a relay satellite built by SSTL, and Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp says he hopes the feed will stay active for at least two years.

University students will be asked to submit experiments and items for the trip

Like Planetary Resources and several smaller space outfits, Mars One is offering the chance for a few people to participate in the project. Before launch, it will ask teams of university students to propose ideas for the mission, starting a contest in 2014 and carrying the winners' experiments or projects in the lander. These ideas, Lansdorp says, could be as complex as a new experiment or as simple as a camera-equipped balloon to take overhead photos of the planet's surface. In the long term, Mars One will also be taking direction from backers of an Indiegogo campaign, letting them vote on "mission decisions" — including the above contests.

While these partnerships signal real progress in the coming years, it's not yet clear how well Mars One's ambitious long-term plans are panning out. Lansdorp initially said he expected a million people to submit applications to take a one-way trip to Mars, paying an application fee that would help fund the trip. Mars One set a goal of half a million applicants by August 31st, but the final number was slightly over 200,000. Over the next two years, that pool will be winnowed to between 24 and 40 people selected for training, with one four-person team chosen to ascend in 2025. That's two years later than the original estimate, as Lansdorp noted in a press conference today.

Everything from selection to colonization is supposed to be broadcast on TV and the internet, building publicity and allowing the company to make sponsorship deals to bring in money; audiences will be asked to vote for their favorite candidates as part of the selection process. The project's business model, in fact, will supposedly be based largely on media deals and crowdfunding, though money from individual wealthy benefactors seems a likely possibility. Mars One isn't the only group hoping to visit the red planet soon: billionaire space tourist Dennis Tito tried and failed to recruit NASA for an extremely unlikely two-person mission in 2017, and NASA itself plans a manned mission sometime in the 2030s.

Update: In a press conference, Lansdorp announced that the manned flight had been delayed two years to 2025. Article has been updated to reflect this date. Mars One also described the bounds of the current contract, which is for a concept only and apparently cost Mars One around $250,000 for Lockheed and 60,000 euros (around $82,000) for SSTL — if it pans out, Lockheed, SSTL, and Mars One will take the next step towards design and launch. Unsurprisingly, the money for these missions is coming largely from sponsors and partners, not crowdfunding. "The public contributions are very important to us, but more from an audience engagement point of view," said Lansdorp.