NASA to test Martian telecom

The collective exhalation after today’s safe shuttle homecoming did not last long, as NASA officials learned of another delayed Vision for Exploration mission.

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is now expected to take flight Thursday, having been delayed one day.

New information technology on the unmanned mission could prepare humans for further outer space exploration, officials said Tuesday.

In addition to conducting basic science with MRO, NASA officials will investigate outer space telecommunications.

“The IT is certainly a step for the IT that would be necessary for humans to get to Mars and back safely," said Todd Bayer, flight system engineer for MRO.

The craft will approach Mars in March 2006. Scientists will then try to solve the red planet's water mysteries -- by capturing data detailing the history of Martian water distribution. The goal is to learn what happened to the water supply and any possible past or present Martian life.

After scientists feast on images and measurements for more than two years, the craft will continue orbiting for at least two more years. During this phase, called the relay phase, the MRO will aid NASA officials in developing an "interplanetary Internet” for future Mars-bound spacecraft. The ultra-speed telecom connection will help other arrivals navigate the red planet and communicate with earth.

Bayer said that, with MRO, future spacecraft will be able rely on a stable telecom network already in place.

But the other landers and rovers can only access the MRO’s link for about five minutes, twice a day, he said.

Electra, the MRO’s navigation and telecommunications relay payload, will provide UHF coverage to surface space-craft via antennae.

NASA officials plan to launch the Phoenix Mars Scout, a smaller, lower-cost lander, in 2007 and an advanced rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, in 2009.

"Electra is a very capable digital radio that can be tuned to transmit on many different frequencies,” Bayer said. “It can autonomously establish a link with rovers. That is a key piece of new technology. The purpose is to have an Electra-type radio on every future Mars craft and have MRO and any other orbiter act as a satellite.”

The MRO will also test a new radio frequency, called Ka-band, to see if NASA officials can generate greater data capacity with significantly less power on future missions.


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