The first human visitors to Mars may have a warm reminder of home to greet them when they land.
With the help of major partners and the nonprofit Explore Mars, a team of college students is now raising money to launch the first private mission to the Red Planet. It won't carry people but messages.
For a 99-cent contribution, anyone can send their submissions of images, messages, audio clips, and videos to put on the time capsule. The team hopes to send the $25 million project to Mars in five years, far ahead of any manned mission.
The idea germinated at a TGI Fridays. Emily Briere, a Duke University engineering major, had just attended the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, D.C., and was chatting with her family and her family friend—inventor and space enthusiast Eric Knight—about how to breathe some life and excitement into some of the advanced technologies they had just learned about.
The group decided that a time capsule project—the challenge of creating a small craft that could land and survive on Mars, and maintain data from Earth—was the perfect mission: It would educate and excite a large number of people about space travel and unite people globally around a common goal. Importantly for raising the required money, it would also be useful in testing different technologies used to get the capsule to Mars.
"Our goal was to create almost an Apollo-era level of excitement," says Briere, who is now a rising junior at Duke and serves as mission director for the Time Capsule to Mars project.
Partnered with MIT’s Space Propulsion Lab, the group will test the newest space engine technology—ion electrospray propulsion—which could reduce travel time to Mars to as little as four months. It will also test out other designs, including "delay tolerant networking" systems that will help the capsule transmit data from deep space and optical quartz storage technology that will encode terabytes of time capsule data for millions of years. According to Briere, the biggest current technological challenge is maintaining communications with the capsule from 140 million miles away—they plan to try out inflatable antennas.
The project has already gained the support and advising of partners including Lockheed Martin, NASA, Stanford, Duke, UConn, and MIT, among other organizations, as well as two former NASA chief astronauts. Students at a growing network of universities are collaborating on the design, technical, business, and marketing plans (Briere's three siblings are also involved). The group is also focusing on an educational mission "to close the gap that currently exists between student interest and the opportunities available to advance space exploration." Individuals will be able to take part in the mission through virtual Mission Control portals and get involved in scientific experiments and data that will be collected on board.
Getting the time capsule off the ground is a serious technological endeavor, but the biggest challenge will be raising the $25 million, says Briere. If it succeeds, it will likely be the biggest crowdfunding campaign in history.
"There are so many intelligent people out there and so many students, that if you get enough people together, we’re pretty confident we’ll figure it out," she says. "The biggest challenge for any space mission is almost always money." You can contribute to the effort here.