Nasa seeks help with Earth-Mars data links

Mars rover Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Robots on Mars need fast ways to transfer data back to Earth

Nasa is asking for help to get data back from its science missions orbiting Mars or roaming its surface.

The US space agency is acting now to close a potential communications gap that is set to occur in 2020.

It currently has no plans to launch orbiters capable of taking over data relay duties from existing, ageing spacecraft.

Nasa is seeking input from universities and companies about better ways to relay the data back to Earth.

Path to Mars

Nasa currently relies on two craft orbiting Mars, Odyssey and the Reconnaissance Orbiter, to pass on data beamed to them from the Curiosity rover.

The two spacecraft can send data back to Earth at a rate of about 2Mbps - much faster than the 500bps the rover can manage by itself.

Data relay duties are set to be taken over by two newer spacecraft that are due to arrive at Mars in 2014 and 2016. Nasa's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (Maven) satellite will go into service in September 2014 and Europe's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter craft will turn up in 2016.

Currently, Nasa has no plans to launch science orbiters to Mars beyond Maven - but there are plans to land more rovers on the planet, potentially creating a problem retrieving data gathered by the robots.

Commercial partners could help overcome this shortfall, Nasa said in a statement.

"We are looking to broaden participation in the exploration of Mars to include new models for government and commercial partnerships," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of Nasa's Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.

The partnership could mean Nasa tries novel ways to transport data. Future communication systems might make greater use of lasers, as they could massively boost data transfer rates.

Laser data transfer was trialled in October 2013 during the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission. During that test, data rates between the Moon and Earth hit 622Mbps.

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

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