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A student-led project called Time Capsule to Mars kicked off a $25 million crowdfunding campaign on Monday, with the aim of sending 4-inch-wide probes to the Red Planet.
For 99 cents, supporters can upload a photo, an audio or video clip or a snippet of text to be included on a quartz-crystal memory module enclosed within the spacecraft. The module would be designed to last for millions of years, preserving the messages to be decoded by future Mars colonists.
Time Capsule to Mars is planning to offer other goodies, yet to be announced, as part of its in-house fundraising effort.
"We hope that this mission will be the largest crowdfunded effort in history," project founder and mission director Emily Briere, a senior at Duke University, said during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington.
The Mars-bound spacecraft would be CubeSats, a class of nanosatellites built from standard 4-inch-wide (10-centimeter-wide) cubes. Three of the CubeSats would be launched out into space as secondary payloads on a commercial orbital mission, and make their way to Mars using an ion-electrospray propulsion system.
Briere said arrangements were being made for launch sometime in the next five years, assuming that the fundraising campaign and the technology development program were successful. However, she said those arrangements were proprietary for now.
The project's backers include students and faculty from Duke, Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Connecticut, as well as advisers ranging from Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin to executives at Lockheed Martin, the Boeing Co. and other aerospace companies.
"I was a product of the Apollo era," said Charlie Precourt, a former NASA astronaut who is now a vice president at ATK, "and we're handing that off now to the next generation to take us to Mars."
Precourt said he planned to upload pictures of his kids and grandkids to send them on a symbolic voyage to the Red Planet.
In addition to the ion propulsion system, the nanosatellites would pioneer such technologies as inflatable antennas, deep-space Internet communications and interplanetary radiation sensors, Time Capsule to Mars said in a news release. The spacecraft would be designed with titanium and aerogel shielding to preserve the memory modules during their descent through the Martian atmosphere.
Design and construction of the mini-probes would be executed by university technical teams, with mentoring from professional engineers. Briere said the mission plan would get its next review on July 18 at Stanford.
Although the standard rate per upload would be 99 cents, Time Capsule to Mars said that basic uploads from the developing world would be free of charge, thanks to sponsorships and corporate donations. "We want every country to be represented," Briere told NBC News.
Briere said she was excited to be involved in a project that brought so many groups together to help people around the world make a connection with the "incredible potential" of space exploration.
"Being a part of that ... is the most exciting thing in the universe," she said.
Time Capsule to Mars is one of several non-governmental efforts aimed at accelerating the pace of Mars exploration. Inspiration Mars has laid out a plan to send two astronauts on a Mars flyby sometime in the next decade, but says the mission would need substantial support from NASA. Mars One, a Dutch-based commercial venture, is planning a series of one-way trips to Mars in the 2020s that would have to be backed by billions of dollars' worth of reality-TV deals.
NASA, meanwhile, says it's planning to send astronauts to Mars and its moons in the 2030s.