It's not likely cell phone companies will set up service on the planet anytime soon, but a network could certainly help the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as it sends rovers to explore the remote and often rocky terrain, said Steve Horan, director of the Center for Space Telemetering and Telecommunications Systems at New Mexico State University.Horan and colleague Phillip DeLeon, an associate professor of electrical engineering, are working on a $650,000 three-year grant from NASA to develop the first cell phone coverage map of Mars - and tweak wireless communication technologies to make them work better across the planet.
"One of the big problems with the Mars Exploration Rovers mission is the long delay time between when you send a command to a rover and when it gets back," Horan
said."That time can range from nine to 20 minutes.If the rover goes out of communication range before you can talk to it, that could mean the end of the mission."
The drawback means the rovers can only travel short distances on flat surfaces, but the work by New Mexico State University
could change that.It could let rovers move into rockier terrain more quickly without fear of losing communications - a threat that could easily leave a rover dead on the ground, Horan
The engineers have sought terrain in New Mexico that looks similar to parts of Mars so they can track that scattering and see how and where the signals might move, Horan
"It's not 100 percent, but there are a lot of places in New Mexico with big rock outcroppings with no vegetation on them, like Mars," Horan
said."We send signals and take data readings in those areas, then put them into a central database and computer model that can predict what will likely happen on Mars."
The computer model also lets the researchers put in different planetary conditions, such as thin atmosphere and iron-rich soil, Horan
Real terrain maps of Mars imaged by NASA
are the backbone of the model, but once all the data is collected and entered into the system, the university will be able to give its sponsor back a full-fledged cell phone coverage map of the planet, Horan
The engineers are also tweaking some retail wireless communications technologies to make them work better on the planet.They are reprogramming the systems and changing the times and signals that they use to optimize them for conditions on Mars, he
"We hope it will help NASA
go to new interesting places on Mars with rocky terrain," Horan