For potential NASA missions, a series of commercial satellites might function as a communications relay system, including an orbiter to look for subsurface ice later this decade. NASA officials have addressed the idea of partnering with industry in the latest briefings to advisory committees to position many satellites into the orbit around Mars, which will act as relays for many other missions, especially the planned Mars Ice Mapper. They said such satellites would significantly boost the number of data missions that can travel back to Earth and end dependency on aging research missions that often act as data relays.
Three satellites that are in the equatorial orbits at high altitude of 6,000 kilometers are featured in one proposal discussed at those meetings. The satellites will be fitted with radio links to communicate in orbit as well as on the surface, as well as to and from Earth with the other satellites. To enable them to communicate with each other, the satellites can also have laser inter-satellite connections.
Eric Ianson, who serves as the Director in charge of Mars Exploration Program at the NASA Agency Headquarters, said during a November. 30 meeting of Planetary Science Advisory Committee of NASA, or PAC, ‘It will be a chance to have excellent relay assets’ for different Mars missions. The constellation will be a “commercial contribution” of some form, he said, but the NASA-industry relationship’s precise essence had yet to be sorted out. Jim Watzin, who served as the at Mars Exploration Program as a director, who is now a senior advisor promoting human Mars investigation planning at the Agency (NASA) Headquarters, said at a Nov. 23 meeting of a committee of the ongoing decadal survey of planetary science, “We plan to achieve this as a private deal that will be sought as well as competed. “This is a space of opportunity, which is an exploration enabler.”
NASA has not announced how much it plans to invest in such a device, either through the ownership and maintenance of satellites or through the procurement of services from privately supplied satellites. Rick Davis, who serves as Assistant Director in charge of research as well as discovery at the Science Project Directorate of NASA, at the decadal meeting held, said It’s a non-trivial expenditure to continue on that path. Still, we agree it’s a really huge opportunity for the Martian science and agency.”
Language in the report supporting the Senate edition of the funding bill for fiscal year 2021 sponsored by NASA pointed at the agency’s involvement in Mars commercial communications. “The Committee is informed that in early 2030s and late 2020s, NASA is exploring potential new frameworks for the use of commercial services for the upcoming communications with the Mars surface assets, even though there are no such services available currently,” the report reported. It called for a study “outlining the Science Strategy for acquiring such commercial services for upcoming and future Mars surface assets” within a period of six months of enactment.
Davis said that Space Communications and Navigation program of NASA, which oversees spacecraft communications by networks including the Deep Space Network and commercial crew and cargo programs, is interested in designing the satellite system. “In essence, we are leveraging their knowledge of how this can be done effectively,” he said.