A US$25 million crowdfunded, student-led mission plans to send three CubeSat microsatellites all the way to Mars, landing time capsules on the surface of the Red Planet, that will contain the digital messages from tens of millions of people from all countries around the world. You can upload a picture of your own, up to 10 MB in size, by contributing just 99 cents.
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The stated objective of the "Time Capsule To Mars" (TC2M) mission is to inspire people throughout the globe, regardless of nationality or social condition, and allow them a personal connection with space in the same spirit of the Apollo missions, except on a global scale. The non-profit organization also aims to educate and inspire children worldwide by enabling them to upload their media content, track their spacecraft and lander, and participate in the mission via a personalized Mission Control portal over the internet.
A student-led team will design, launch, fly and land three CubeSat-based spacecraft on the surface of Mars, also thanks to the support of NASA, MIT, Stanford and Deep Space Industries, among others. The projected cost of the mission, covering everything from design to launch, is $25 million, which TC2M will attempt to raise by way of crowdfunding.
At the moment, you can only upload images up to 10 MB in size. However, in the coming months you will also be able to upload other types of media such as videos, audio clips and text files. In order to reach as many people as possible, uploads in the developing world will be free of charge for smaller files, underwritten by corporate sponsors.
"We hope to inspire and educate young people worldwide by enabling them to personally engage and be part of the mission," said mechanical engineering student Emily Briere, who is heading the project. "The distributed approach to funding and personal engagement will ultimately guarantee our success."
The data will be carried out by three identical 13-kg (27-lb) CubeSat spacecraft, each 30 x 40 x 10 cm (12 x 16 x 4 inches) in size. This will be the first time that such spacecraft are used for interplanetary travel, as well as the first time that many of the new technologies are being tested.
Inside the time capsule, the data will be stored in a quartz crystal, which is not only extremely dense, but also holds the promise to last for millions of years, and is therefore ideal for surviving the hostile conditions on the surface of the Red Planet.
The technologies being tested on the three spacecraft include delay-tolerant networking for the Deep Space Internet, inflatable antennae, and new interplanetary radiation sensors that will pave the way for future human trips to Mars. But out of all the new technologies being tested, the most exciting is certainly the propulsion system.
The three spacecraft will be propelled by an ion electrospray system (iEPS) developed at MIT. Forty thruster pairs will be arrayed on the bottom of each spacecraft, and thrust will be generated using an electric field to extract and accelerate ions. The propellant, ionic liquid, is much more efficient than rocket fuel, and MIT scientists believe that a scaled-up version of their system may bring humans to Mars in as little travel time as four months.
The propulsion system only takes up 10 to 30 percent of the volume in a small CubeSat craft (Image: MIT)
As it stands, the propulsion system is specific for CubeSats, providing attitude control and propulsion with specific impulse between 2,000 and 3,500 seconds in a system that won't occupy more than 30 percent of the smallest CubeSat spacecraft. It is based on the extraction and acceleration of heavy molecular ions through strong electric fields between the propellant (which doesn't need to be pressurized) and a vacuum.
MIT scientists expect that 150 grams (5.3 oz) of propellant would be enough to allow the smallest-sized CubeSat to reach Earth's escape velocity from low-Earth orbit, so it could be sent out to explore interplanetary space.
Although a scaled-up version of the propulsion system is expected to get a human-rated spacecraft to Mars in only four months, the TC2M CubeSats are expected to take 7 to 11 months due to the size and positioning of the thrusters, and with the actual travel time depending on the relative position of Mars and Earth at launch.
The choice of employing three separate but identical spacecraft for the mission may be due in part to the fact that so many new technologies are being tested at the same time. To triple the chances of success, Briere has previously said that crowdfunders who want to send their media to Mars will have the option of having the data uploaded on all three spacecraft, for an additional price.
Landing on Mars
The spacecraft themselves will disintegrate as they traverse the Martian atmosphere. However, the payloads are being designed to aerobrake and land on the surface of Mars while keeping the data intact and preserve it for a long time, uncorrupted, on the surface of the planet.
One option that is being considered for reliably delivering and storing data on the surface of Mars was to use a microinscribed thin tungsten sheet, which has the advantage of being thin, light and strong, with a high melting point (meaning it won't disintegrate as it enters the atmosphere) and good aerobraking properties because of its large surface area. However, there are concerns that sandstorms on Mars might damage the data once it has landed.
A second option would be an aerogel-shielded media. A metal ball could encase the data which would be stored a very light medium, such as a quartz memory. The metal ball would be surrounded with an aerogel that will act as an ablative shield as it enters the atmosphere. As it gets closer to the surface, the metal ball will act as a cushion for the data as it lands on Mars.
The organizers have only just announced their crowdfunding plans, and expect to reach the very ambitious goal of $25 million before the launch, which is planned for 2017.
You can contribute to the mission and upload your own picture by visiting the mission website, plus you can watch the short promotional video below which describes the mission and its goals.