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Student Project Aims to Land Time Capsule on Mars

Emily Briere

Emily Briere, project mission director (A. Kotok)

23 June 2014. Students from four U.S. universities — with help from research labs, not-for-profit organizations, and companies — are building a space vehicle to propel and land a time capsule of digital files from earth on the surface of Mars. The Time Capsule to Mars project also plans to raise $25 million through crowdfunding to pay for its development.

The project is the work of undergraduate and graduate students at Duke University, MIT, Stanford, and University of Connecticut, who aim to design, build, launch and land a payload based on CubeSat satellite technology. CubeSats have a standardized size and design — 10 centimeters in height, width, and depth, with a weight of 1 kilogram — that fit as secondary  cargo on space launches, and are inexpensive to make. CubeSats are made to spin in low-earth orbit, then burn up in space after completing their missions.

Emily Briere, a senior in engineering at Duke University, is mission director of Time Capsule to Mars, who told a press conference in Washington, D.C. that the project aims to bring the world together in a common endeavor, and added in a statement for the press conference, “in the spirit of global cooperation and peace as we collectively seek to colonize the first off-world planet.” The payload will include images and other digital files contributed from volunteers worldwide.

Collecting the contributed digital files also provides the funding mechanism for the project. Jon Tidd, a recent Duke business school graduate and co-leader of the project, outlined the business plan, which calls for participants to upload photos, videos, text, and audio files for $0.99 each (video files may have a higher price). Through this combination of crowd-sourcing and funding, Time Capsule to Mars aims to raise $25 million.

John Tidd

John Tidd, project business director (A. Kotok)

Tidd told Science & Enterprise, the project plans to host the funds collections, since public crowdfunding platforms (e.g. Indiegogo, Kickstarter) have limitations on collecting the uploaded contributions.

The contributed digital files will be stored on high-density crystal quartz glass media, encoded with lasers, and with a potential storage life of up to 100 million years. Demonstrations by Hitachi show that data can be etched on four layers of quartz glass in the form of microscopic pits that can be read later as binary data. Hitachi says its tests show quartz glass media can withstand temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius for two hours.

Time Capsule to Mars plans to adapt a propulsion system for CubeSats developed at MIT’s Space Propulsion Lab. The technology, called ion electrospray propulsion, uses a microthruster designed like a microchip that adds little weight and takes up minimal space on a CubeSat. The microthruster uses a form of capillary action that draws ionic liquid plasma that acts as fuel through the chip-like device.

The project does not have a definite timeline at this point, but Briere told the press conference, they hope the launch will occur “within five years.” She added that the CubeSat capsule will be slowed when entering the Mars atmosphere and cushioned to withstand impact with the surface, thus eliminating the need for parachutes or reverse thrusters.

Time Capsule to Mars is an undertaking of Explore Mars Inc., a not-for-profit organization that promotes Mars exploration in the near future. The project is also supported by Draper Laboratory, an engineering research institute, and the companies Lockheed Martin, ATK, Aerojet, Deep Space Industries, and Remarkable Technologies.

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