Red Planet Seeks a Better Data Plan

NASA requests proposals for commercial Mars communications network

1 min read
Red Planet Seeks a Better Data Plan
Illustration: JPL/NASA

In a move likely to both incite critics and excite supporters of the agency, last week NASA issued a request for proposals for a possible commercial communications network around Mars

The request comes as the space agency mulls its options for future unmanned—and ultimately manned—Mars missions. NASA currently operates two orbiters around the red planet that also serve as relay stations for other Mars missions, most notably the celebrated Mars rover program. On 21 September 2014, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (aka MAVEn) orbiter will add one more node in the communications network, making three NASA-operated Mars relay satellites.

But, according to John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, after MAVEn, no other orbiting communications platforms are on the books for the red planet. Yet several Mars surface missions and other small orbital missions are will be arriving over then next few years.

“Depending on the outcome, the new model could be a vital component in future science missions and the path for humans to Mars,” Grunsfeld said in a prepared statement.

As IEEE Spectrum reported in 2009, NASA has already called for development of a for-profit communications network for lunar missions too. However, if the 2009 request for proposals yielded any concrete lunar-data-network commercialization plans, we aren’t aware of them.

More promising has been NASA’s own tests last year of a 622 megabit per second laser uplink to the moon. The current Mars request cites the agency’s pulsed laser transmission as a possible “area for improvement” over present-day Mars communications technology.

NASA requests that all burgeoning Bells submit plans for their proposed Mars Telephone and Telegraph network by 25 August.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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