Needs to phone home. Artist's image of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, nicknamed Curiosity. Credit: NASA

Aug 7, 2014 A giant leap for satellite communications?

Sen—With two rovers currently operating on Mars, a lander due to fly in 2016 and another rover in the planning stages, NASA is a bit worried about how they are all going to communicate with scientists and engineers back on Earth.

The agency’s two satellites for relaying communications from Mars are getting old. Mars Odyssey was launched in 2001. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter followed in 2005.

A new science and relay orbiter, called MAVEN (an acronym for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) is slated to reach Mars in September, but after that there is nothing, raising the prospect of a communications gap in the 2020s.

“There are no NASA Mars science orbiters currently manifested beyond MAVEN, creating a need to identify cost-effective options for ensuring continuity of reliable, high-performance telecommunications and navigation relay services,” the agency wrote in a solicitation posted on its procurement website.

Who will fill the bill? One option is a commercial entity that would own and operate one more Mars orbiting communication satellites and sell the services to NASA.

“The current strategy has been cost effective to date, because NASA has launched science orbiters to Mars on a steady cadence; the cost of the relay infrastructure has effectively been limited to the incremental cost of adding a relay payload to them,” the agency said.

NASA is interested in exploring alternative models to sustain and evolve the Mars relay infrastructure,” it said.

A commercial communications network on Mars may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

After the space shuttles were retired, NASA looked to set up alternative supply lines to the International Space Station and eventually settled on commercial providers Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, and Orbital Sciences Corp.

SpaceX has sold its Falcon launchers to other customers as well, but so far NASA is the only client for Orbital’s Antares rockets.

By the end of 2017, NASA intends to be buying rides for its astronauts as well. The agency currently is reviewing proposals from SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp.

NASA even pays a commercial company for water on the space station. Hamilton Sunstrand Space Systems owns equipment that uses station's excess carbon dioxide and hydrogen to produce water and methane. The methane is vented into space, while the water is fed into the station’s water treatment system prior to use.

NASA doesn’t own the equipment. It buys the water service.

"This is a fundamental shift in the way we do business,NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier said when the contract was awarded in 2008.

“The only requirements we have imposed (on the contractor) are those associated with safety and interfaces,” he said.

A commercially operated communications network on Mars also may present NASA with the opportunity to upgrade its service. Last year, NASA demonstrated an optical communications system on its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft. Download rates between the lunar orbiter and Earth reached 622 megabits per second.

That’s a whole lot of Mars movies.

Proposals are due Aug. 25.