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NASA considers commercial telecom satellites at Mars

Posted: July 27, 2014

NASA may take the commercialization of the final frontier to other planets with a study that could lead to the construction of interplanetary communications satellites to relay data between Earth and future Mars rovers.

Diagram of NASA's Mars data relay architecture, showing how rovers on the surface send data to Earth via orbiters overhead. Credit: NASA/JPL
The space agency has asked U.S. and international companies and scientists for information on commercial communications solutions to speed up data links between Earth and the red planet.

Government-owned satellites do the job now with a specially-designed radio riding piggyback on scientific orbiters circling Mars.

But those spacecraft are chiefly designed for research missions, and NASA's attempts to build a dedicated Mars telecommunications orbiter have been halted by limited funding.

The purpose of NASA's request for information, or RFI, released July 23 "is is to explore new business models for how NASA might sustain Mars relay infrastructure, consisting of orbiters capable of providing standardized telecommunication services for rovers and landers on the Martian surface, in the Martian atmosphere, or in Mars orbit," according to a posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

According to the post, NASA will use information it receives from respondents to inform its future Mars exploration strategies, but the agency has not decided to pursue a commercial interplanetary telecom initiative.

"We are looking to broaden participation in the exploration of Mars to include new models for government and commercial partnerships," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA's science mission directorate, in a statement. "Depending on the outcome, the new model could be a vital component in future science missions and the path for humans to Mars."

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey spacecraft at Mars currently provide high-rate communications links with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on the planet's surface.

NASA says Curiosity's science return would be curtailed if it had to send back data via a direct-to-Earth link, which can only transmit information at less than 500 bits per second.

Using Electra UHF radios on MRO and Odyssey, Curiosity's images, measurements and telemetry gets home at a rate up to 2 megabits per second, 4,000 times faster than possible through a direct link, according to NASA.

The rovers send up data to the orbiters when they pass overhead, then the orbiters send it to Earth through NASA's Deep Space Network communications system.

But officials are concerned the orbiter relay capability -- considered almost vital to future rovers and a potential Mars sample return mission -- could end as aging Mars orbiters stop functioning.

Odyssey has been at Mars since October 2001, and MRO has begun its ninth year in orbit around the red planet.

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission is also fitted with an Electra relay radio. It is due to arrive at Mars in September, but MAVEN's planned orbit is not ideal for collecting and sending rover data.

The European Space Agency's Mars Trace Gas Orbiter will launch in early 2016 with a NASA-supplied Electra telecom package.

Scientists in charge of both missions say they want to use the spacecraft as much as possible for their primary research objectives instead of turning over their orbiters to become communications satellites.

After 2016, NASA and ESA do not have another Mars orbiter on the books. ESA is launching the ExoMars rover in 2018 in partnership with Russia, and NASA is developing another rover for launch in 2020.

"NASA's current Mars relay infrastructure is aging, and there is a potential communications gap in the 2020s," officials wrote in the RFI. "With that in mind, NASA is interested in exploring alternative models to sustain and evolve the Mars relay infrastructure."

The lack of planned orbiters beyond 2016 creates "a need to identify cost-effective options for ensuring continuity of reliable, high-performance telecommunications and navigation relay services," officials wrote.

NASA says it is seeking options to purchase data relay capabilities using commerically-owned and operated spacecraft in orbit at Mars. The orbiter would support landers, rovers, and potentially aerobots and other science orbiters at the red planet.

Officials also asked for ideas involving technologies that could speed up communications links between Earth and Mars, including the potential of using optical communications similar to a system demonstrated by NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer last year.

A laser telecom payload on LADEE demonstrated a data link from the Earth to the moon with a download rate of 622 megabits per second.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.