NASA seeks to boost Mars communication network ahead of human missions

by Chris Gebhardt

As part of its increasing dedication and ramp up of activities at the red planet, NASA has announced a solicitation of ideas for a new Mars orbiter in the 2020s that will be tasked with a variety of scientific objectives as well as an enhancement of the communications network around the red planet in advance of human exploration of Mars in the 2030s and beyond.

The announcement:

The call for ideas is NASA’s first major effort at improving the communications relay network at Mars since the launch of its MAVEN spacecraft in 2013.

Mars ommunications linkWhile MAVEN will enhance the existing telecommunications network, its limited lifetime and the aging fleet of other orbiters at Mars does not match the needed timeline for human exploration of Mars, nor would it be prudent to not upgrade the communications network now.

To that end, NASA has announced a solicitation of ideas from U.S. industry for designs of a Mars orbiter for potential launch in the 2020s.

The satellite would provide advanced communications and imaging, as well as robotic science exploration, in support of NASA Mars missions.

The orbiter would substantially increase bandwidth communications and maintain high-resolution imaging capability and may be used as a testbed for experimental cutting-edge technologies such as high-power solar electric propulsion or an optical communications package, which could greatly improve transmission speed and capacity over radio frequency systems.

Under the direction of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is conducting pre-formulation planning for this possible orbiter mission, which includes the procurement of industry studies for a solar-powered orbiting spacecraft.

Moreover, this effort seeks to take advantage of industry capabilities to improve deep space, solar electric propulsion-enabled orbiters to accommodate scientific instruments, demonstrate capability for rendezvous and capture, and advance telecommunications capabilities.

“Our success in exploring Mars, to unravel the mysteries of the Red Planet, depends on having high bandwidth communication with Earth and overhead imaging,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“Currently, we depend on our orbiting science missions to perform dual service in making measurements and acting as communication relays, but we can’t depend on them to last forever. This new orbiter will use cutting-edge technology to revitalize our ability to continue to explore Mars and support transformative science, including a potential sample return mission in the future.”

MarsPer the announcement, JPL plans to award concept study subcontracts of $400,000 per subcontract in June 2016. The concept studies for the spacecraft will be completed over a four-month period.

In response to an earlier request from NASA, the Mars Exploration Program formed an analysis group that proposed, in a 2015 report, possible science objectives for a Mars orbiter capable of replenishing and advancing the telecommunications and reconnaissance resources available at Mars.

Moreover, NASA is studying how to implement this mission concept in concert with its international partners to the greatest extent possible.

Historically, there have been significant international contributions to NASA Mars missions that include the Curiosity rover, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) orbiter, both currently orbiting the Red Planet.

The role of telecommunications at Mars:

The need for telecommunications ability at Mars has been an ever-present part of exploration of the red planet.

Mars OdysseyHowever, prior to 2001, telecommunications between landers and spacecraft with Earth was accomplished through direct communication from the orbiter or lander itself.

It was not until 24 October 2001, when NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter arrived in orbit of the red planet, that the first telecommunications relay was in place at Mars.

To this end, Mars Odyssey was the first spacecraft at another planet specifically designed to serve in part as a relay station for communications between spacecraft and Earth.

Mars Odyssey was then joined on 1 January 2003 by the Mars Global Surveyor, which, after several years in Mars orbit, was repurposed into a partial communications relay.

With this, for the first time, NASA began building a sophisticated orbital network of satellites to relay information back to Earth.

Mars Global SurveyorIn December 2003, both Mars Odyssey and the Mars Global Surveyor successfully provided monitoring assistance for the arrival of the Mars Express spacecraft for the European Space Agency (ESA) and unsuccessful landing on the Beagle 2 spacecraft onto Mars.

Following Mars Express’ arrival, the spacecraft joined the telecommunications network, making the network an international effort – which continues to this day.

The first successful test of telecommunications relay from Mars for a landing spacecraft came in January 2004 when the Mars Odyssey – with the assistance of the Mars Global Surveyor –  successfully relayed information on the arrival, entry, descent and landing, and “I’m alive signals” from the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, during their landings on the red planet on 4 and 24 January 2004 respectively.

Mars ExpressThe two spacecraft also provided monitoring assistance during the arrival of MRO on 10 March 2006, after which the majority of telecommunications relay operations from the Mars Global Surveyor transferred to MRO.

Like Mars Odyssey and Mars Express, MRO was specifically designed to serve as a communications relay link between Earth and Mars.

Shortly before MRO was declared fully operational, however, the Mars Global Surveyor ceased operations on 2 November 2006, and the mission was declared officially over in January 2007.

Since beginning its primary mission in November 2006, MRO has relayed and transferred more information regarding its own mission as well as the ongoing missions and past missions of spacecraft at Mars than any other spacecraft in JPL history.

MROWhile much of the information returned from various missions has relayed through the MRO, Mars Express, and Mars Odyssey, the telecommunications link the three spacecraft provide is perhaps seen publicly at no greater time than during the arrival of spacecraft and landers at Mars.

This was seen prominently on 25 May 2008 when NASA’s Phoenix polar lander mission plunged into the Martian atmosphere.

Prior to Phoenix’s arrival, Mars Odyssey, MRO, and Mars Express were all specifically repositioned in their respective orbits to provide a continuous telecommunications link with the atmospheric-entering spacecraft as well as capture every element of the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) sequence of the mission.

Phoenix landingNot only did Mars Odyssey, MRO, and Mars Express meet all of their monitoring objectives during the EDL sequence for Phoenix, but MRO also captured the first-ever images of a spacecraft parachuting toward the surface of another planet, allowing engineers on Earth to assess how the hypersonic parachute actually performed in the Martian atmosphere.

During the course of its mission, the Phoenix lander relied on Mars Odyssey for communications and data uplink and relay of its scientific data back to Earth while it continued its operations in the high-latitude northern polar region of Mars.

When Phoenix – as expected – stopped transmitting on 2 November 2008 when available solar power dropped below operational levels, NASA used Mars Odyssey to attempt to contact Phoenix again during the next Martian northern hemisphere summer, when it was thought that Phoenix might (though unlikely) revive.

CuriosityFollowing the success of Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and MRO during the Phoenix mission landing, the orbiters were once again repositioned in their orbits to set up a similar continuous communications relay of information back to Earth for the all-important 2012 Curiosity rover landing.

On 6 August 2012, when the Curiosity rover plunged into the Martian atmosphere for the most anticipated and technologically challenging landing of a rover onto the red planet, the Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and MRO spacecraft provided a continuous telecommunications link with the craft during EDL operations.

Moreover, the three orbiters, working in concert with each other, also provided continuous communications ability with Curiosity in the immediate post-landing timeline when health checks with the rover confirmed its operational readiness in the aftermath of its sky-winch-lowering, rocket thruster assisted landing.

MAVENSince then, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft has served as the primary communications relay between Curiosity and controllers on Earth, as the Mars Odyssey’s polar orbit allows it to pass over Curiosity twice daily for communications uplinks.

Following this, in 2014, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and MRO were joined in orbit by NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft, which aside from its primary scientific mission is designed to enhance the telecommunications relay system at Mars.

Thus, assuming all spacecraft are still functional, NASA, Russia, and ESA will have four telecommunications spacecraft available for real-time monitoring and information relay of arriving spacecraft at Mars when the ExoMars and Schiaparelli EDM lander mission arrives in 2016, when InSight arrives in 2018, and when the Curiosity rover’s beefed-up Mars 2020 cousin rover arrives in 2021.

ExoMarsHowever, unlike other NASA spacecraft which have far exceeded the decadal mark of their missions and are looking at flights well into the next decade and beyond, MAVEN will not achieve such a long-duration mission.

In fact, MAVEN only carries enough propellant to remain in Mars orbit for 10 years, placing the end of its operational use in 2024.

At present, the Mars Express spacecraft is anticipated to function until at least the end of 2016. To date, ESA has not discussed mission extensions beyond the current one that expires at the end of this year.

For NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, JPL engineers estimate that the spacecraft can continue operations until at least 2025.

Mars Comm NetworkFor MRO, NASA has stated that the spacecraft has enough propellant to remain operational in Mars orbit until at least 2034.

Thus, none of the existing telecommunications satellites in orbit of Mars will be operational at the time of the earliest possible human exploration of the red planet under the current time lines.

This directly translates to a need to begin replacement of the existing telecommunications network as well as an enhancement of that network to provide the types of communication that will increase and enhanced safety as humans move toward a presence on another planet.

(Images via NASA and ESA)

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