Commentary | Private Mars Missions? The CubeSats-to-Mars Program

by and

We have reached a turning point in space exploration. Private-sector Mars missions — or possibly public-private partnerships — may be viable in the near future. Missions based not on a profit model but on passion for exploration, understanding Mars and advancing the state of the art of space technology could drive private financial resources. This could make private-sector missions a reality by the middle of this decade.

NASA’s significant budgetary cuts in space science will likely slow future Mars missions. In an effort to find innovative ways to re-engage the public and secure public support, NASA’s Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) recently reviewed over 400 Mars mission proposals. The quality and diversity of proposals presented to MPPG were impressive. A wide range of approaches for robotic exploration of Mars were discussed, including, but not limited to, orbiters, rovers, balloons, airplanes and hoppers. Many of these proposals were highly innovative and efficient in design and cost.

One potential approach to martian exploration is the CubeSats-to-Mars concept proposed by a group of organizations including Busek Co. Inc., Explore Mars Inc., United Launch Alliance LLC, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems LLC and California Polytechnic State University. Unlike other mission concepts, CubeSats-to-Mars would deliver up to 27 3U (three-unit) cubesats to Mars orbit.

Cubesats would be transported to Mars by a carrier bus based on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter, or ESPA, platform with efficient electric propulsion. The ESPA loaded with multiple cubesats would be launched as a secondary payload to minimize launch costs. Once in martian orbit, the cubesats would be released, providing many appealing exploration opportunities. The ESPA-based platform would remain in orbit serving as a communications relay between the cubesats and Earth and other missions. A constellation of cubesat orbiters could enable more continuous surface communications and lend support to other ongoing Mars explorations (e.g., atmospheric measurements and three-dimensional imaging for surface features).

There are other attractive benefits to this approach. Large numbers of modestly priced cubesats allow cubesat developers to train, inspire and challenge students. A national or international student competition could encourage innovative martian cubesat designs. This would provide an unprecedented opportunity for students to design hardware that will be sent to another planet — and could make significant contributions to our understanding of Mars. Many countries with space programs do not have the resources to mount a Mars mission on their own. This concept could provide an affordable option. It is a paradigm shift for space exploration.

When we send humans to Mars, it will likely be accomplished through significant resources of government space agencies, but private organizations are taking on a greater role in space exploration. Individuals and private companies are interested in funding valuable planetary science missions, and have already proven themselves capable of impressive engineering feats, such as Space Exploration Technologies’ missions to the international space station. Private efforts can support government missions with crucial data and infrastructure such as communications and martian weather data. The CubeSats-to-Mars concept provides a robust, very affordable and highly viable option to mount the first private or semi-private mission to Mars.

We invite private individuals and all types of organizations, such as businesses, universities and governments, worldwide to join us in our CubeSats-to-Mars endeavor.

Vlad Hruby is president of Busek Co Inc. Chris Carberry is executive director of Explore Mars Inc. Additional information about the CubeSats-to-Mars project can be found, or by emailing [email protected]