Q&A: How a College Student Will Send a Time Capsule to Mars

Small cubes piggybacking on planned missions would carry millions of digital messages to the red planet.

A pioneering student effort to design, fund, launch, and land three small payloads on the surface of Mars kicked off Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., with the ambitious goal of making the delivery within five years.

Reflecting the proposed project's focus on Earth's younger generation, the Time Capsule to Mars mission will consist of digital messages, photos, videos, and audio files contributed by people around the world.

A photo of Emily Briere.

The mission was dreamed up by 20-year-old Emily Briere, a junior at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Her plan takes advantage of the burgeoning field of "CubeSats"—science payloads the size of two cereal boxes that can sometimes piggyback on a major mission launch and get a free ride into space. The roughly $25 million necessary for funding the project will come from what could be the world's largest ever crowdsourcing effort.

Already a year in the making, the project is actively supported by NASA and some of the biggest names in the space industry, such as the nonprofit Explore Mars, which has assumed operational control. And as space missions usually require team efforts, Briere has brought in other students from around the United States, with scientists as mentors, to help get the project going—on both the technical and financial sides.

"Ten years ago, I would have seen this as a pipe dream with no chance of success," said Paulo Lozano, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lozano and his students worked with Briere to test out the technical dynamics of a Mars landing. "But with the explosion of CubeSat and other small mission technology, I think this is now entirely possible," he said.

National Geographic spoke with Briere about what motivated a young woman from tiny Mansfield, Connecticut, to think so big.

What got you interested in space?

When I was little, my folks would bring home videos about black holes, and my mom taught us about the solar system using fruit in the kitchen. I remember one video about space and infinity, and it piqued my interest. I struggled to understand what it meant, or what it was. But I was so excited by it and began to dream about a career in space.

What is the Time Capsule to Mars, and how did the idea for it come together?

I was at the first Humans to Mars conference [at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.] with my dad and brother and was surprised that there weren't more young people, students, involved. Over lunch we started talking about how to interest my generation in space, and the idea of sending out photos and videos and messages of all kinds seemed promising.

Our generation is all about social media and connecting, and [the Time Capsule to Mars] would be an extension of that. People would feel a real part of it—going into space virtually. We'll be taking another step to connect Earth and Mars.

Why Mars?

Mars is definitely to us what the moon was to the first space generation. We weren't alive during Apollo, but we've watched as rovers and satellites tell us more and more about the planet. It's the obvious next big destination, and people really think about some day having human colonies on Mars. Who knows, maybe one of the colonists might someday find [the time capsule].

What exactly would they find?

Extremely thin tungsten sheets about 30 centimeters by 40 centimeters [12 inches by 16 inches]. The audio and video will be digital, but the images will be engraved in the sheets. You'd need a microscope to see them—an image of your favorite person up there on Mars.

The plan is to have these sheets bolted on to the surfaces of three CubeSats. Once [the CubeSats] reach the Martian atmosphere, the heat-sensitive bolts would release and the tungsten sheets drop down to the surface. We've projected about 80 percent of storage will be photos, 15 percent audio, and 5 percent text.

Without a heat shield or parachute, won't the sheets burn up or crash?

We were fortunate to get some funding to do a feasibility study at MIT, and the aerodynamics of our landing seem to work. The sheets weigh only 23 grams [less than an ounce], but they'll be coming into the atmosphere at 12 kilometers per second. We'll rely on aerobraking to slow down, and our simulations show the sheets will spin and tumble through the atmosphere and will hit the ground at 20 meters per second. We were delighted by that number.

Meanwhile, the CubeSat capsules will burn up in the atmosphere, and so won't be crashing into the time capsules.

Getting to Mars is famously expensive; what are your projected costs? And how will you pay for the mission?

Our best estimates now are that we'll need $25 million. We've been looking for seed money from some aerospace companies and universities and foundations, and we've gotten a good reception.

Early this year I put out an email looking for a business partner, and was fortunate that Jon Tidd, a graduate business student at Duke, was eager to do it. We've been putting together plans for crowd-funding, for selling tiered space on the capsules and just reaching out on social media. As of now, we're talking about something like 99 cents to get a photo on the time capsule.

We want this mission to be about what space means to all humanity, and so we don't want to be sponsored by a single company. But I can imagine a bunch of smaller sponsors with messages [such as] "Amazon Prime delivers to Mars."

Other than sending the time capsules to Mars, what do you hope to accomplish?

Because ours will be such a small craft, we can experiment with new technologies that would be way too expensive now to try on a major mission. Probably most important is the ion electrospray propulsion, a potentially important new way to power capsules on the way to Mars. We'll also have to miniaturize communications equipment in a new way.

There are a lot of technical issues to overcome when sending something to Mars—how are you dealing with those?

We now have quite a few university labs interested and involved, and professors at them will be our mentors. Each of the labs specializes in a different part of the mission, so together we'll have expertise across the board.

When do you hope to launch?

It wouldn't be for several years. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to go up on a launch headed in the right direction. We think we've identified a good one already.

We want this [project] to be student planned and student run. So as people graduate and get jobs, we'll be looking for others interested in making this connection with Mars.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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