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Red Planet Wayfinder: A GPS system for Mars

Future explorers of Mars will always need a way to know where they are, regardless of whether they’re rover automatons or flesh and blood humans.

To do that, NASA researchers and scientists alike have been studying the requirements for a potential GPS around Mars that could also function as a communications network. Their vision is a small flotilla of Mars spacecraft conducting their own science while watching over future robotic or human expeditions, then relaying data back to Earth.

Mendillo and a team of researchers studied the effect of Mars’ ionosphere would have on a potential satellite navigation system around the planet. The research, which appeared in a recent edition of the journal Radio Science, is part of a broader effort by scientists to develop the satellite infrastructure for an anticipated fleet of rover missions to Mars in upcoming years.

But current studies expect the system to grow gradually from piggybacked services aboard future science spacecraft to a dedicated platform, such as the anticipated Mars Telecommunications Orbiter set for 2009 – the first satellite specifically designed to facilitate communications with another world.

A dedicated Mars GPS system would be a boon for future robots bound for the red planet, allowing them to drive farther without having to stop and check their distance with photographic records.