NASA’s robotic Mars explorers are wonderful machines, but they’re only as good as their data links. All that photo-taking, drilling, and chemical analysis is pointless unless the information gets beamed back to scientists on Earth. Ask the people on the New Horizons mission, who’ve been waiting more than a year to get all their data from Pluto, which is still trickling in at dial-up speeds.
The space agency has grand plans for the next 20 years of Mars exploration, both human and robotic, and either scenario—whether it’s an astronaut expedition or a fleet of telepresence robots—requires high data rates to reach its full potential. The current communications network in Mars orbit, using existing spacecraft like the Mars Odyssey and Mars Express, is aging. So NASA asked aerospace companies to propose ideas for a next-generation communications and data relay in Mars orbit, to be launched as early as 2022 and begin service by 2024. Yesterday the agency awarded five study contracts to most of the major industry players.
Aside from relaying high-resolution pictures and video transmitted by other Mars spacecraft (at speeds comparable to home broadband services), the new Mars orbiter would carry its own instruments, including a camera capable of seeing objects as small as a couple of feet across on the surface, according to information given to would-be proposers last May. NASA also wants to leave open the option to use this new orbiter as part of a proposed Mars sample return mission—exactly how is not specified. The new spacecraft must use solar electric propulsion, rather than liquid-fuel engines, to get around. And all proposers must have experience building a spacecraft that has ventured beyond Earth orbit. Taken together, these requirements appear to rule out a network of smallsats around Mars, and there’s no mention of optical communications technology that could boost data rates even higher.
Still, this is good news. Placing this kind of infrastructure in Mars orbit may not be the most glamorous job NASA’s ever done, but it’s absolutely necessary. The new Mars relay is expected to handle up to 800 Gigabits of information a day. For comparison, the entire New Horizons Pluto flyby produced just under 500 Gb of data.
If this is a glimpse of the Martian future, here’s a nod to the past: Viking 1 landed on the surface of Mars 40 years ago tomorrow. Starting today at 2:00 Eastern time and running through tomorrow, there will be a symposium at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia to mark the anniversary. You can tune in here: