Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:
In recent presentations to advisory committees, NASA officials have discussed the possibility of working with industry to place several satellites into orbit around Mars that would serve as relays for other missions, notably the proposed Mars Ice Mapper. Such satellites, they said, could greatly increase the amount of data missions can return to Earth and end reliance on aging science missions that also serve as data relays.
One proposal presented at those meetings features three satellites in equatorial orbits at altitudes of 6,000 kilometers. The satellites would be equipped with radio links for communicating with other spacecraft in orbit and on the surface as well as to and from Earth. The satellites may also include laser intersatellite links to allow them to communicate with each other.
This is such a no-brainer of a program for NASA, assuming they can get the money and approval for it from Congress. It would solve a massive need for NASA—a dwindling and soon-to-be-if-not-already-overloaded communications network at Mars—while also pushing the private industry to up its game and prove itself.
If the program comes to fruition, I would mark this down as close to a must-win for SpaceX. It’s so directly tied to their current and future ambitions—almost literally Starlink at Mars—that it would feel wrong if they don’t go all in on this and make sure its their name on those satellites.