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NASA seeks commercial satellites to talk to Mars


July 24, 2014

Artist concept of commercial Mars satellites providing communications (Image: ASA/JPL)

Artist concept of commercial Mars satellites providing communications (Image: ASA/JPL)

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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.

Artist concept of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (Image; NASA)

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.

Artist concept of LADEE (Image: NASA)

“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.”

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

If there were viable resources we could exploit on mars it would already be in place.

Bob Flint

@ Bob Flint

There are plenty of viable resources on the Moon and Mars. Exploiting them is more challenging than exploiting terrestrial resources so there is no incentive to exploit them. If there were resources on Mars that could not be gathered in any other way we would be on Mars today regardless of the challenge.

Even so we’d still be on mars today if the government were to cease to stifle innovation in a misguided attempt to protect the status quo. We’d be out there doing new things and exploring new areas, just because that is what humans do. Instead we’ve been forcibly limited to chemical rockets with a 2% launch margin and launch processes that cost more per pound than the average citizen makes in a month. SpaceX is fighting that stifling, and doing it with incremental improvements that will not completely destroy the competition, just force them to wake up and really innovate for the first time in decades. Even so the thumb sitters are still trying to squash them with litigation based on laws that were passed solely for the protection of these existing players.


"... lasers could be a vast improvement over radio ... "? Is this bureaucrat speak for: On second thought never mind the RFI request? NASA should switch over to lasers and probably will by the time a plan to partner with the private sector on radio communication is developed.

VG.: Government will never willingly leave us alone to innovate. We have to ignore it until it fades away. It will, as more and more people realize it is just a self imposed obstacle that we need to "shrug" off.

Don Duncan

Don Duncan, both good points.

Bill Bennett
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