NASA considering commercial Mars data relay satellites

WASHINGTON — A constellation of business satellites may function a communications relay system for future NASA missions, akin to an orbiter later this decade to seek for subsurface ice on Mars.

In current displays to advisory committees, NASA officers have mentioned the potential of working with business to position a number of satellites into orbit round Mars that will function relays for different missions, notably the proposed Mars Ice Mapper. Such satellites, they mentioned, may vastly enhance the quantity of knowledge missions can return to Earth and finish reliance on growing old science missions that additionally function information relays.

One proposal introduced at these conferences options three satellites in equatorial orbits at altitudes of 6,000 kilometers. The satellites could be geared up with radio hyperlinks for speaking with different spacecraft in orbit and on the floor in addition to to and from Earth. The satellites might also embody laser intersatellite hyperlinks to permit them to speak with one another.

“This can be a chance to offer nice relay belongings” for numerous Mars missions, mentioned Eric Ianson, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, throughout a Nov. 30 assembly of NASA’s Planetary Science Advisory Committee, or PAC.

That constellation, he mentioned, could be a “business contribution” of some variety, though the precise nature of the association between NASA and business had but to be labored out.

“We intend to do that as a business contract that can be solicited and competed,” mentioned Jim Watzin, former director of the Mars Exploration Program who’s now a senior adviser supporting human Mars exploration planning at NASA Headquarters, at a Nov. 23 assembly a panel of the continuing planetary science decadal survey. “This is a chance house that’s an enabler for exploration.”

NASA hasn’t disclosed how a lot it foresees spending on such a system, both by proudly owning and working the satellites or shopping for companies from commercially offered satellites. “It’s a non-trivial expense to maneuver on this path, however we consider it’s a very massive alternative for the company and Martian science,” mentioned Rick Davis, assistant director for science and exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, on the decadal panel assembly.

Language within the report accompanying the Senate model of a fiscal 12 months 2021 appropriations invoice that funds NASA hinted on the company’s curiosity in business communications at Mars. “The Committee is conscious that NASA is investigating doable new fashions for utilizing business companies for future communications with Mars floor belongings within the late 2020s and early 2030s, although no such companies exist immediately,” the report acknowledged. It referred to as for a report inside 180 days of enactment “outlining the Science plan for securing such business companies for future Mars floor belongings.”

Davis mentioned that planning for the satellite tv for pc system entails NASA’s House Communications and Navigation program, which handles spacecraft communications by programs such because the Deep House Community, in addition to the business crew and cargo applications. “We’re primarily making an attempt to leverage their expertise on how to do that very effectively,” he mentioned.

Whereas company officers mentioned the constellation could possibly be used for any variety of future Mars missions, the one it’s most intently tied to is Mars Ice Mapper, a mission included in NASA’s fiscal 12 months 2021 price range request to fly an orbiter to Mars no sooner than the mid-2020s. The orbiter, geared up with an artificial aperture radar offered by the Canadian House Company, would seek for subsurface ice deposits that could possibly be sources for future human missions. The Japanese house company JAXA and Italian house company ASI are additionally anticipated to collaborate on Mars Ice Mapper.

Davis mentioned a communications system just like the one proposed may enhance the info returned from Mars by an element of 100, which might be beneficial for Mars Ice Mapper, whose radar will generate giant volumes of knowledge. “That’s revolutionary, doubtlessly, by way of having the ability to stream complete information and likewise having the ability to do time histories of issues we’re taking a look at,” he mentioned.

As well as, he famous a communications community at Mars would imply future missions wouldn’t want their very own highly effective direct-to-Earth communications programs, and might as a substitute fly with smaller and cheaper programs that may work with the info relay satellites. “We see vital dividends for the science neighborhood going ahead that basically opens up an envelope of alternative that we now have not had earlier than with Martian exploration.”

“Experimenting with business communications was introduced up as a chance as we examined the bandwidth limitations of Ice Mapper,” Watzin mentioned, citing advances in business communications satellites. “Is the time proper that one may exploit the derivation of that expertise and deploy it Mars at an inexpensive value such that we will make a paradigm shift in how we do communication and enhance the effectiveness of how we do our missions?”

Nevertheless, Watzin and others emphasised that Mars Ice Mapper shouldn’t be depending on that communications community. “If it seems to not be inexpensive, to not be well timed, or the danger is simply too excessive, then the Ice Mapper mission proceeds with out it,” Watzin mentioned.

Ianson made the identical level on the PAC assembly. “My understanding is that it’s not a fully must-have,” he mentioned. “It might assist with the relay of knowledge and it could additionally present a greater relay community round all of Mars.”

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