Researchers in Scotland have discovered a way to enable continuous communication from Earth to Mars, making manned missions to the red planet slightly more plausible.
The technique, which was investigated by engineers at Strathclyde University, would allow continuous communication with one spacecraft.
It was previously believed this was not possible because the Sun obscures the Earth’s view of Mars for several weeks at a time. This would prevent any possibility of ground controllers making contact with astronauts.
The Strathclyde research centres around Lagrange points – five areas in space where an object such as a satellite or observatory can stay fixed in the same location relative to the Earth and Sun. The team has investigated how emerging space technologies can be used in Lagrange points one and two to open up new possibilities for future missions.
Malcolm Macdonald, the leader of the research, said: ‘By moving a spacecraft with a continuous thrusting propulsion system into Lagrange point one, we’ve calculated that it’s possible to enable continuous communication from the Earth to the spacecraft and from the spacecraft to the surface of Mars.
‘We’ve also shown that by using a similar technique but with two spacecraft, we can further improve communications. Hovering directly above Mars limits communications to just one polar region. But by using two spacecraft, we can enable communication to a much wider area of the planet.’
The research was based on potential evolutions of the T6 Thruster technology being developed for the European Space Agency’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury, due to set off in 2014.
Macdonald continued: ‘Currently, every spacecraft we have is in orbit about Mars. But this is not necessary – we can use the Lagrange points and low-thrust propulsion to keep spacecraft in a fixed position.
‘Our research has shown that we have a whole catalogue of space-science opportunities available in the next ten to fifteen years by using technologies that are already in the pipeline. This can include everything from new space missions to continually monitoring the effects of climate change on the arctic. Our aim is to challenge conventional ideas and enable radical change in the near term.’
Macdonald’s team carried out the research at Strathclyde University’s Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory, European Space Agency’s European Space Operations Centre and Glasgow University. The work was funded by the European Space Agency’s General Studies Programme.
The team’s findings are being released this week at the 60th International Astronautical Congress, the world’s biggest space conference, being held in Daejeon, Korea. It is part of a €100,000 (£92,440) study funded by the European Space Agency to investigate how new and emerging technologies could be used to radically enhance space science, from greatly improving telecommunications to enabling Arctic monitoring.