The relay radios on two Mars science orbiters are making it possible to communicate with NASA's robots, rovers and landers on the red planet. But these spacecraft might be out of commission soon, and NASA believes one possible solution is to purchase services from commercial space companies that plan to launch orbiters of their own. See, the rovers and landers on Mars communicate with the ground crew by using a severely limited direct link or by using the Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter as relay stations. Sadly, the agency has no plans to launch more orbiters of its own at the moment, and this could disrupt communication in a few years' time.

Thus, the agency has asked for the detailed investigation (a process called Request for Information or RFI) on the feasibility of paying for the services of commercial orbiters to communicate with robots on Mars beyond 2020. To be clear, NASA hasn't talked to contractors and companies about anything concrete yet, and it's also working on other projects that could solve the issue, including LADEE, which transmitted data to the moon via laser beams in 2013. Using orbiters as relay stations has been really cost effective, though, so the space division's hoping to make it work for future missions.

[Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]