Because the satellites currently orbiting the Earth are getting old and the data NASA is after is so sensitive in nature, the space agency would like to set up a much better relay system with the red planet and all the equipment there. With this in mind, they have put out a call for a commercially owned and operated satellite network to be placed on Mars.
It’s simple, really. NASA needs to keep in touch with all the rovers, landers, and orbiters while they continue to search for signs that the planet once had life and snap their curiously unusual pictures. What better way to do it than the same way people keep in touch on our own world, right?
We currently have two communications satellites in martian orbit. Both of them have a limited capacity and were never built to handle much more than the missions for which they were originally sent.
The Mars Odyssey, which was launched in 2001, was sent to use spectrometers and electronic imagers to detect any evidence of past or present water or volcanic activity on Mars. It has also been acting as a relay for communications between the Mars Exploration Rovers, the Mars Science Laboratory and the Phoenix Lander and sending those signals back to Earth.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was sent up in 2005 intent on exploring Mars from orbit. It began its primary science phase in 2006. The spacecraft contains scientific instruments such as cameras, spectrometers, and radar, which are used to analyze the landforms, stratigraphy, minerals and ice of Mars, paving the way for future spacecraft by monitoring the weather and surface conditions, discovering potential landing sites and helping with the communications issues.
Unfortunately, these two craft alone won’t be able to handle the load if the U.S., Europe, Russia and India each follow through with their planned scientific endeavors over the next few years. It is expected that by 2018, several new endeavors will have gotten under way on the planet’s surface and some even believe that, not too many years later, a human presence will have arrived.
“There is a potential communications gap in the 2020’s,” NASA wrote in the post on their procurement website. “With that in mind, NASA is interested in exploring alternative models to sustain and evolve the Mars relay infrastructure.”
A commercially operated communications service would be much more cost effective than anything NASA could make on its own, and it would also be profitable to the service provider. The project is currently in the idea phase at the moment as the space agency explores all the possibilities. Proposals are due by August 25th and will be reviewed sometime thereafter.