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Mars One Plans Two, Possibly Three Communications Satellites for the Red Planet

By Caleb Henry | January 7, 2014
Mars Surrey Lockheed

Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp. Photo: Mars One

[Via Satellite 1-07-2014] Mars One is most well known for its ambitions to establish the first human colony on Mars. Last week the nonprofit made the first announcement regarding applicants for its mission, selecting 1,058 candidates; of which 24 will travel to Mars. Before candidates are selected however, Mars One is planning to establish the first communications satellite network for the Red Planet. Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) is currently performing a concept study on the satellites, which will pave the way for surface activity on the planet. Mars One is planning to use at least two satellites to link its future Martian colony back to Earth, with potential for a third.

“These kinds of space missions always start with a concept study, after which you do the next phase if you are happy with the progress and with the type of plan the supplier is proposing,” Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of Mars One, told Via Satellite. “We have the intention to move forward with Lockheed Martin and Surrey, but it depends on the results of the study.”

Lockheed Martin has been contracted to perform a concept study for Mars One land rovers, while SSTL is focusing on the satellites. Both companies will look at interplanetary missions conducted by space agencies in order to determine what unique challenges the spacecraft will have operating on and around Mars. The results of the study are expected around May, according to Lansdorp. Because Mars orbits approximately 140 million miles from the sun, compared to the 93 million miles that separates the Earth and the sun, there are unique challenges that must be anticipated and may influence the lifespan of the geosynchronous satellite.

“This is one of the things we will expect as a result of the study from Surrey,” said Lansdorp. “There are some parameters that suggest it may have a short lifespan, being further away from the sun. It is colder there, but the radiation environment is better than the one around the Earth, so there is also something to make it seem like a better environment.”

Mars One is seeking to establish contact with Mars for as much time as possible on a regular basis. To accomplish this, it has planned for a minimum of one satellite to orbit Mars and another to orbit the sun.

“The communications satellite is the first Mars synchronous communications satellite, and it will be orbiting in the same place in the sky all the time so that we have continuous contact first with our landers,” said Lansdorp. “Especially later on when the humans are there it is essential to been in 24/7 contact with the outpost on Mars. Its dedicated purpose is communication.”

The first satellite needs to be in constant sight of the outpost, but there are times when Mars itself will be in the way of the orbiter. The sun also occasionally blocks the path. This necessitates a second satellite in a different orbit some distance from the Earth in order to maintain a line of sight between the spacecraft and engineers on the ground.

“You need a satellite that is in a different orbit around the sun to be able to solve that second problem,” said Lansdorp. “It also solves the problem of Mars being in between Earth and the Mars Stationary Communications Satellite.”

Lansdorp also explained another planetary hurdle that could require a third satellite. There might be instances where both the sun and Mars are in the way of the Mars Stationary Communications Satellite. Because Mars takes significantly longer to complete a year, there are times where Earth and Mars are directly opposite each other with respect to the sun.

“We might need a second relay satellite at some point in time, or we will accept that there are a few hours each day for a period of about 6 weeks every two years where we cannot communicate with the base on Mars,” said Lansdorp. “We might need a second relay satellite in the other Lagrange points, in Lagrange points four and five to make sure that it is in location when the sun and Mars are in between the satellite and the Earth. For that instance we may need a second relay station around the sun.”

In a move to garner more interest in the mission, Mars One has also announced a university competition for the Mars orbiter. This competition, though ancillary to the overall meaning for the satellite, will provide another way for people to be involved.

“We are asking universities worldwide to propose an experiment or an instrument or anything they want that we will fly to Mars on the Mars Stationary Communications Satellite,” said Lansdorp. “And we will run that experiment or demonstration or whatever they want for them. There might be something else other than just communication, perhaps a simple camera because it is fun, but the number one purpose is communication.”