2018 Competition: Satellites Around Mars - What Will It Take?

The colonization of Mars has become a much-talked-about topic, from Elon Musk’s stated desire to end his days on the red planet to the Mars One campaign to send astronauts on a one-way journey there. One of the first steps required for successful colonization will be to put communication relay satellites into orbit to support robot landers and ultimately human settlements. Satellites are a well-established technology – but the challenges of getting them to another planet and operating them there will be vast.

Project Specifications

Your assignment is to create a satellite communications capability to support exploration, colonization and early development of Mars, including both surface-to-space communications and Mars-to-Earth communications.

Mission Description
Initial exploration of Mars will be conducted robotically to assess environmental conditions, availability of resources and potential colonization sites. Supporting the robotic mission will be a fleet of small satellites in low Mars orbit, which provide a minimum of 6 hours of connectivity per robotic lander or about 25% of the sidereal day. Because smallsats will lack sufficient power for Earth-Mars communication, they will network with a larger satellite in middle or synchronous orbit positioned for a maximum duration of line of site with Earth.

The robotic exploration mission(s) will be followed by the dispatch of habitat units assembled in Earth orbit, flown robotically to Mars orbit and landed on Mars. Once operation of the habits is confirmed, the first human colonists will make the journey from Earth to Mars.  By the time human colonists reach the surface, the communications system will need to provide surface-Mars orbit-Earth connectivity for 98% of the sidereal day.

The mission will be developed and funded by multiple nations, which will also contribute terrestrial communications infrastructure to maintain the link with Mars.  The mission plan should include testing in Earth orbit before deployment to Mars. 

Mission Duration
The robotic phase of the mission will commence with a first Mars landing no later than 10 years from today. The first small human colony will be established within 20 years of today. (If you wish to propose a different duration, specify what it is and provide a rationale.)

Your engineering and technology proposal may make use of established technologies or rely on technologies currently in development that may be successfully tested and commercialized between now and the time of the mission(s).  If you rely on to-be-proven technologies, indicate so in your submission and briefly explain your knowledge of them. 

Your submission should address:

  • Engineering and technology requirements for building, launching and flying satellites from the Earth’s surface into Mars orbit and operating them there.
  • Business analysis of the costs of designing and building the satellites, insuring them, launching them and operating them over a reasonable lifetime.

The submissions will be judged first on the quality, depth and rigor of the work presented and secondly by the breadth of the work in terms of topics covered.

The competition takes place from early October 2017 through February 2018, with the award made formal in March 2018.

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