OPINION: NASA needs to start investing in Mars comms network

The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

The completed MRO spacecraft sits in the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility prior to fairing encapsulation in July, 2005. Credit: NASA

By practically every metric, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been an incredible success. Launched on August 12, 2005, MRO has spent more than ten years orbiting the Red Planet, both as a science-gathering platform and as a communications relay for other Mars-based assets. In its science role, it has contributed to significant findings on the planet, and returns more science information from Mars in a single day than the weekly total of all other Mars missions.

Indeed, in the time it has been active in the Martian system, MRO has transmitted more than 264 terabits (33,000 gigabytes – more than 7,000 DVDs) of data, which is more than all other interplanetary missions — past and present — combined. Not only that, but it has done so at data rates ranging from less than 500 kilobits per second (Kbps) when Mars is at its furthest from Earth (approximately 250 million miles) to 4 megabits per second (Mbps) when the two planets are a “mere” 60 million miles apart.

In its role as a communications relay satellite, MRO has no equal in the Martian system. Its 10-foot diameter high-gain antenna, combined with the 100-watt X-band radio, makes for the perfect partner to relay critical telemetry and science data from other spacecraft in-system. Beyond the obvious benefit of having a large antenna with which to communicate with Earth, being able to use MRO’s comms assets can translate to inbound spacecraft needing smaller – and less massive – comms systems of their own. This mass savings may have a significant impact on the type of science instruments included on the spacecraft, or perhaps may allow for a great fuel load, thus extending the usable life of the craft. Read More →