2019.A.2.5. Monitoring Mars’ Atmospheric Dynamics: From an Areostationary SmallSat Concept to a “MultiSat” Concept


Luca Montabone (1)
Bruce Cantor (2)
Michel Capderou (3)
Lorenzo Feruglio (4)
François Forget (3)
Nicholas G. Heavens (1)
Robert J. Lillis (5)
Michael D. Smith (6)
Francesco Topputo (7)
Michael VanWoerkom (8)
Michael J. Wolff (1)

  1. Space Science Institute, Boulder, CO, U.S.A.
  2. Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, CA, U.S.A.
  3. Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique – IPSL, Paris, France
  4. AIKO S.r.l., Turin, Italy
  5. University of California, Berkeley, CA, U.S.A.
  6. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, U.S.A.
  7. Polytechnic University of Milan, Milan, Italy
  8. ExoTerra Resource LLC, Littleton, CO, U.S.A.




Mars, Atmosphere, Areostationary satellite, SmallSat, MultiSat


The Martian atmosphere (from the surface up to the outer layers) is a very dynamic system, quickly responding to strong radiative forcing coming from the absorption of solar radiation from dust particles lofted during dust storms. So far, such dynamical phenomena at short time scales and large spatial scales have been observed mainly from spacecraft in polar or quasi-polar orbits, which cannot provide continuous and simultaneous observations over fixed, large regions. This limitation can be bypassed using spacecraft in equatorial, circular, planet-synchronous (i.e. areostationary) orbit at an altitude of 17,031.5 km above the Martian surface. Besides their possible use as communication relays for ground-based assets and for space weather monitoring (they are outside Mars’ bow shock), the scientific advantages of areostationary satellites for weather monitoring are comparable to those provided by geostationary satellites. These platforms greatly increase the temporal resolution and coverage of single events. Thanks to NASA funding (PSDS3 program), we have elaborated a mission concept to put a low-cost, low-weight, small-size, ESPA-class system in areostationary orbit, which is capable of supporting various tank sizes in order to provide a wide range of ΔV for three different Mars arrival scenarios. Our industrial partner, ExoTerra Resource LLC, adapted its Electrically Propelled Interplanetary CubeSat (EPIC) bus as part of the mission design. Despite the optimization of the flight trajectories and the use of machine learning algorithms to prioritize data downlink, the conclusions of the concept study clearly point towards the current challenges represented by propulsion, communication, and possibly radiation tolerance for scientific SmallSat missions to Mars. Such conclusions are generally common among all low-cost interplanetary SmallSat concepts. A paradigm shift in the scientific exploration of the Red Planet (but applicable to other planetary bodies too) could come from the use of a “MultiSat” platform composed of a mothership and several CubeSat/SmallSat daughterships. The mothership would provide ridesharing opportunity to Mars and large bandwidth communication to Earth, while still possibly hosting a large payload. The constellation of daughterships may include areostationary satellites and other satellites in different orbits, all hosting small, independent, and focused payloads. Contrary to the concept of a large, “monolithic” spacecraft, with interdependent instruments, such a flexible and optimized “MultiSat” platform could be used to continuously monitor the global dynamical connections between the Martian sub-surface, surface, lower and upper atmosphere, and even determine the change in atmospheric escape rates during high impact events such as the last global dust event in summer 2018.


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