The aging data relay spacecraft orbiting Mars


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By the 2020s, NASA and other space agencies sending landers and rovers to Mars will be faced with a data-relay crisis, as the orbiters they presently use to provide communications with the Martian surface are aging, and no replacements are presently planned.

The venerable Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and Mars Odyssey spacecraft were the first to employ data relay capabilities in the modern era of Mars exploration. They operated as relays for the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions until the arrival of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2006.

MGS entered into a safe mode in November 2006 and NASA later declared the mission over in January 2007 after the space agency failed to reestablish contact with the aging orbiter. The 12-year-old MRO and 17-year-old Odyssey have served as the primary data relays for Mars surface missions since.

More important, funding for a dedicated communications satellite called NEMO, planned for launch in 2022, has disappeared.

However, funding for NeMO has been largely phased out in favor of directing limited funds towards the development of the Mars Sample Return mission. Mars Sample Return has the primary objective of fetching samples that scientists plan to collect and cache using the Mars 2020 rover currently under development. The current Planetary Science Decadal Survey has listed the flagship sample return mission as the primary objective for NASA’s Mars program in the 2020s, along with requisite funding. The existing fleet of orbiting spacecraft at Mars, while aging, are in generally good health meaning the postponement of a new orbiter will require careful management of existing orbital assets into the next decade.

One of the reasons there is no funding for NEMO is that NASA has had to steal money from its planetary program to fund the cost overruns on the James Webb Telescope. Though this was never admitted publicly, the cuts that the Obama administration imposed on the planetary program were partly to pay for Webb. Thus, not only has that telescope killed almost all of NASA’s entire astrophysics program, it has damaged the planetary program as well.

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3 comments

  • Diane Wilson

    I seem to remember that MAVEN has telecommunications capability, although its science orbit leaves much to be desired as far as actual use for communications goes. If true, that is a backup possibility, at some sacrifice of MAVEN’s primary goals.

    Perhaps Elon Musk could make his first Mars mission a fleet of Starlink satellites to provide cheap internet access for Mars…..

  • geoffc

    That is ok. SpaceX will be landed on Mars before NASA funds an replacement communication relay. I am sure a BFR can drop one off in orbit.

    But seriously, even on Elon time, expect a cargo flight to Mars by BFR mid-2020’s which is almost certainly before NASA can gets its act together.

  • Localfluff

    I think this will be solved by using other spacecrafts as relays. Satellites will be launched to Mars every conjunction form now and ever after. ESA’s ExoMars trace gas orbiter is now in its science orbit that has a NASA telecom relay installed. Russia will make another attempt to reach Phobos. JAXA will launch the Mars’ moons explorer MMX. And soon Elon Musk will start launching his retirement luggage there, and his space internet satellite fleet idea of course has its eyes on Mars.

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