You can land the most advanced spacecraft in history on the Mars, but if you can’t keep in touch with it, it might as well be so much scrap. To prevent that from happening, NASA has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to investigate the feasibility of using private satellites to provide communications into the 2020s between Earth and the fleet of exploration probes operating on and around Mars.
Though the US and European orbiters and rovers are state-of-the-art hardware, they still rely on radio-link communications systems from the 1960s. The rovers are able to communicate directly with Earth, but they only have limited power and during the Martian night they’re often out of the necessary line of sight, so they use the orbiters with their more powerful transmitters as relays.
This arrangement works, but it has a couple of problems. For one, using radio, even the orbiter links have very limited bandwidth, so only so much information can be transmitted at any time. But the other big problem is that this relay system depends on NASA’s Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and ESA’s Mars Express orbiter. These will soon be joined by NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) and ESA’s ExoMars/Trace Gas Orbiter, but after that, no more Mars orbital missions are currently planned. According to NASA, this means that by the next decade gaps could appear in the relay network as older orbiters fall out of service.
NASA’s RFI looks into the possibility of solving the problem is by using privately owned and operating spacecraft to act as relays for NASA Mars probes. The invitation seeks business models that might support such a plan, and invites American industries, universities, nonprofit organizations, NASA centers, and federally funded research and development centers to participate in the study. However, NASA emphasizes that the RFI is strictly for planning and information and that no government money is budgeted for it.
Another aspect of the RFI is NASA’s interest in new communications technologies. NASA points out that it has recently enjoyed a great deal of success with its 2013 Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, which used a laser instead of a radio link for communicating with Earth. Result of this was a record-breaking download rate of 622 Mbps. The space agency believes that properly developed, lasers could be a vast improvement over the radio channels and high-gain antennae of current Mars probes.
“We are looking to broaden participation in the exploration of Mars to include new models for government and commercial partnerships,” says John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Depending on the outcome, the new model could be a vital component in future science missions and the path for humans to Mars.”
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