On November 14, SSPI presented a second-place cash award to students from the SEDS Chapter at the University of Central Florida for planning a mission called IRIS: putting communications satellites around Mars to support exploration and colonization.  The winners of our second prize were team leader Diego Ospina and teammates Daniel Garcia, Jon Bell and Michael Hopper.  Their industry Mentor was Ed Ashford, an enormously experienced satellite engineer and president of Ashford Consulting.

Specifying the Mission
The competition asked student teams to plan two phases of Mars exploration.  In the first, the communications network would provide a minimum of 6 hours of connectivity per sidereal day to support robotic landers within 10 years.  In the second, the network would need to provide connectivity between Mars and Earth for 98% of the sidereal day to support human exploration and colonization beginning 20 years in the future.

The Clarke Orbit Around Mars
The Central Florida team chose the most classic architecture of all for its Mars network: a three-satellite constellation in aerocentric orbit using widebeam transmission to provide near-complete Martian coverage, just as Sir Arthur C. Clarke illustrated it in his historic 1945 article proposing GEO communications satellites. 

In the first phase, the team would launch a single large-scale satellite, IRIS-1, aboard an Atlas V from ULA and transfer it to Mars orbit.  The satellite would be equipped with a 3.5m high-gain antenna for communication with Earth and three 0.5m antennas for surface and inter-satellite links. Operating at multiple frequencies, it would provide data rates up to 24 Mbps at the farthest distance of 400 km between Earth and Mars.  Like other teams, Central Florida planned to rely on the existing NASA Deep Space Network of 34 earth stations around the Earth. 

Over the next ten years, succeeding missions would put IRIS-2 and IRIS-3 into Mars orbit.  Together, the satellites would provide 98% coverage of the surface, and manage the link to Earth through inter-satellite connectivity.  Whichever satellite had a view of Earth would become the relay for the other two satellites in the network. 

Learn More
You can read the full report of the U Central Florida team here, as well as see an interview with all the members of the group.  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 Illinois Urbana-Champaign Mission to Mars