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For a Buck, You'll Be Able to Send Your Picture to Mars

The first commercial Mars mission could be a time capsule project.
April 23, 2014, 12:10pm
An artist's rendering of the spacecraft. Image: Time Capsule to Mars

In 1977, NASA loaded Voyager I and II with gold-plated records containing images of Earth, human civilizations, and nature, a variety of sounds from the planet, and spoken messages in 55 different languages, and launched them toward Pluto, with the hopes that one day, alien life forms would find and play them. A new project has a similar premise but more modest goals: a university-led team plans to launch a time capsule to the surface of Mars, hoping that one day, humans that have colonized the planet will be able to see its contents.

The project is called Time Capsule to Mars, and could be the first commercial mission to the planet, if all goes according to plan. Launched by Duke University student Emily Briere, the mission is the latest attempt to crowd fund a space trip. The plan is to charge people 99 cents each to embed a photo on a two-terabyte tungsten hard drive, load it onto a tiny cube satellite, and use an all-new propulsion system to get to Mars in just four months, which is more than twice as fast as traditional flights to the planet.


I ran into Briere at the Humans to Mars conference in Washington, DC, where she was pitching her project to NASA scientists, engineers, and other people interested in eventually settling Mars. She says the idea didn't spur from the Voyager golden records, but once the project got started, the similarities were obvious.

There’s no official timeline yet, and there’s certainly no guarantee the group, which has since expanded to include teams at MIT and the University of Connecticut and is hoping to add teams at Stanford University and the University of California Santa Cruz, is able to raise the $30 million it hopes to through crowdfunding. That’s a lot of photos (they’ll charge more for video and larger files). But Briere says the team has already secured a spot on a to-be-announced university space launch sometime in the next three years. If that timeline works out, they’ll be the first private team to send something to Mars.

It's the latest approach to crowdfunding a trip to Mars—a tactic that hasn't worked well yet. But Time Capsule to Mars is asking a fraction of what Inspiration Mars is looking for, and it's asking for tiny sums of money from each person. Briere says the goal is to get "a couple million people" to upload a few photos each.

The plan is to load onto a larger satellite launch and, once in space, break off and begin thrusting the tiny, 11 x 15 x 4-inch cube towards Mars.

An early version of the ion electrospray system. Image: Dan Courtney/MIT

The propulsion system, called ion electrospray, is being developed at MIT. It uses an electric field, and the vacuum of space, to push ions out of the satellite, which allows it to constantly accelerate in space without using all that much fuel. The idea, Briere says, is to use an array of tiny thrusters to match and eventually exceed the normal speeds seen in space.

“It’s a completely different approach,” she said. “Each one produces just a little amount of thrust, but when you put together several thousand thrusters, it works. The advantage we have over other systems is that we’re essentially going to be thrusting the entire way, instead of just at the beginning.”

That’s a huge change, and it means that, as the satellite gets close to Mars, it’ll be traveling much faster than it was at the beginning of its trip. That’s part of the reason why the team is using a tungsten hard drive. The idea is to make a hard drive strong enough that it can survive impact on the Martian surface without braking, using a parachute, or an airbag. In doing so, it becomes easier to engineer a project, because there’s little fear of actually breaking the thing—remember, Curiosity’s most vulnerable period was the landing.

Full details about the launch are going to be announced sometime in mid-May, which is when people will be able to begin buying space on the time capsule.

“We started with this idea to remind everyone why we go to space,” Briere said.

Not everyone can go to Mars, but for a buck, you might be able to put your picture there.