Thursday, July 24, 2014

No human has ever been to Mars. But NASA wants to put commercial satellites there.

Humanity's research on the red planet keeps getting ever more sophisticated. Between the little rovers we keep sending, the images that come back and the larger payloads NASA hopes to land there in the future, it'll only be a matter of time before research agencies are going to need far more communications capacity with Mars than they currently have.

That's why NASA is investigating ways to put commercial satellites into the planet's orbit. A network of privately funded satellite relays could take advantage of next-generation, laser-based data links capable of sending information back to Earth hundreds of times faster than the typical American broadband connection.

NASA already has two science satellites orbiting Mars. They'll be followed by a third satellite, arriving this fall, and a European orbiter in 2016. But NASA says it doesn't have any others planned for the foreseeable future, and with the cost of sending such equipment, it's not clear that the government can afford to do so, anyway. Hence the interest in shifting away from publicly funded equipment.

"Looking ahead, we need to seriously explore the possibility of the commercialization of Mars communications services," said Lisa May, NASA's lead program executive for Mars exploration.

The privatization of beyond-Earth space exploration has already begun; billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has said he intends to put astronauts on Mars by the end of the decade. Expanding the scope of SpaceX's mission to include not just launch vehicles and astronauts but actual orbiters would represent another big leap for the company — and its rivals.