On November 14, SSPI presented a third-place cash award to students from the SEDS Chapter at the University of Michigan for their detailed plan to put communications satellites around Mars to support exploration and colonization.  The winners of our third-place prize were team leader Rob Gitten and teammates Joshua Aviles, John Behrendt and Jason Wallace.  Their industry Mentor was Turner Noel of Space Systems Loral. 

In the exploration phase, we asked the mission planners to put satellites into Mars orbit that provide a minimum of 6 hours of connectivity per robotic lander or about 25% of the sidereal day.  By the time the first colonists land, the communications network would need to provide connectivity between Mars and Earth for 98% of the sidereal day.  We asked for the exploration network to be in place within 10 years, and the colonization network within 20 years.

Mixing It Up
The U Michigan plan stood out for its use of leading-edge technologies, including some that are still in the experimental stage.  Their architecture, called M-CONeCT 2.0, called for 32 cubesats to communicate with the Martian surface and 4 carriers, which place the cubesats into orbit and then provide data relay to Earth using optical communications.

The cubesat design called for a 6-cube unit with extensible solar panels and antennas for both ground and relay communications.  The constellation will launch in 3 phases of 8 satellites each to meet the separate robotic and human requirements.  The optical communications links are based on NASA’s Lunar Lasercom Space Terminal that first flew in 2013 and its matching ground segment. 

Higher Standards
Pushing beyond the mission parameters, the team decided that the system should interface with the existing Electra communication protocol used by NASA for Mars robotic missions.  They expected that some of NASA’s missions, which have long outlasted their design lifetimes, will still be operating 10 years from now and will benefit from the mission’s greater connectivity.  The team also picked 2 Mbps as the minimum continuous bandwidth for the link to support the dozens of flight controllers and engineers needed to monitor human flight. 

Learn More
You can read the full report of the U Michigan team here, as well as see an interview with team leader Rob Gitten.  See a full description of the Satellites Around Mars competition, conducted in partnership with the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. 

Next Up: The University of Central Florida Mission to Mars