NASA May Bring a Laser-Based Internet to Space for Mars Missions

In this July 27, 1969 file photo, Apollo 11 crew members, from left, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins sit inside a quarantine van in Houston.

In this July 27, 1969 file photo, Apollo 11 crew members, from left, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins sit inside a quarantine van in Houston. AP

NASA will need to boost its comms to support human space travel.

Over the weekend we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the famous moon landing when Americans first stepped foot on another celestial body. It truly was a giant leap for mankind, and although I was not yet around, I’m sure that everyone was gathered in front of radio and television sets in breathless anticipation as the astronauts made their first foray out to the moon’s surface.

Today, the moon still holds some fascination for us earthlings down here. India just launched its Chandrayaan-2 (moon-craft) mission after a series of technical delays kept the innovative craft grounded past its original launch date. Although not a manned mission, Chandrayaan-2 will demonstrate the ability to make a soft landing on another planet, technology that could one day be used to help people make a safe planetfall elsewhere. If India pulls that off, they will be the fourth country to achieve that feat. Chandrayaan-2 will also search the moon’s southern pole for ice, which one day could be a water source for spaceships passing by on their way to far-off worlds.

Back at home, NASA is also planning a return to the moon as part of Project Artemis, so named because the Greek goddess was the sister of Apollo, thus showing that Artemis has its roots in those original Apollo missions. Although Artemis is supposed to be manned, the real goal is not necessarily reaching the moon again, but using it as a stepping stone and proving ground to get us to Mars, and eventually beyond.

One of the least talked about components to that is the need for something akin to the internet in space. It’s needed not just for two-way communications but for quickly troubleshooting technical problems that crop up on missions and, of course, sending video and other information back to Earth so that we can all experience space together.

For the Apollo missions, NASA set up a dedicated network for communication and data sharing. It consisted of facilities evenly spaced around the world, with one in the Mojave Desert in California, one in Spain and two in Australia. That ensured that signals coming from the moon would always be received regardless of how the Earth was rotated at the time.

But even with a dedicated network in place, very much like today, bandwidth was a problem, especially for video. The black and white television standard at the time used 525 scan lines transmitted at 30 frames per second. That’s actually not too bad. Though the resolution was low, even today most movies are shown at 24 frames per second. The problem was that the entirety of the 4.5 MHz broadcast spectrum was being used to transmit critical data from the spacecraft. There was no room left for sending moon movies back to Earth, though it had to be done to satisfy the heavily-invested public. 

NASA compensated by creating a new broadcast standard consisting of 320 scan lines at 10 frames per second and transmitted at 500 kHz. It was kind of herky-jerky, and the contrast was so high that it’s difficult to see very fine details. It also had to be translated back to the normal TV standards before it was broadcast, which further hurt the details. But it worked to bridge the 238,000-mile gap between Earth and the moon for millions of people.

Fast forward a little closer to today, and move a few million miles further out, and we have the Mars Curiosity robotic mission of 2012. You might be surprised to learn that Curiosity used the same three base stations as the Apollo missions, even though it was sitting (at a minimum) of 33.9 million miles away from Earth, and using much more advanced technology. As a side note, Curiosity is, incredibly, still operating on Mars today, having sent back 595,085 images as of July 22. It’s currently rolling along a traverse, stopping to take chemical samples of interesting rocks it finds and of course more pictures.

NASA has upgraded its facilities over the years, now called the Deep Space Network, to try and compensate for all the ongoing space missions these days. This included adding more big antennas and creating arrays of smaller ones to help add more bandwidth. There is a fascinating webpage that tracks the activities of all of the antennas in real time, including which spacecraft they are talking with. As I was writing this column, I watched antenna DSS 35 in Canberra suddenly go active and start talking with the Odyssey spacecraft, one of a network of orbiters now circling Mars. That signal took 43.76 minutes to make a round trip and used the 7.16 GHz frequency.

The current technology works fine for robotic missions. The transmissions are still a little slow, and the overall bandwidth is far from unlimited, but the results speak for themselves. However, I doubt it would be good enough for missions with humans. Waiting almost an hour to download a picture from Mars is one thing, but responding to an emergency where lives are at stake is quite another. For the safety of the astronauts, a more instantaneous signal, as well as more bandwidth, is going to be required. Essentially, we need to create an internet in space.

That may happen if we can get a laser communications system deployed. NASA is testing the feasibility of that as part of its Laser Communications Relay Demonstration project. The experiment is scheduled to begin by launching a satellite in orbit this summer that will receive and transmit laser signals from two base stations located in Hawaii and California. If it succeeds, NASA might be able to create a much more efficient system that works like the current Deep Space Network, but with much faster speeds and more reliable bandwidth that relies on lasers to transmit all signals.

“We’ve learned a lot over the years about radio-frequency communications and how it works to make the most of the technology,” said Dave Israel, LCRD’s principal investigator, in a statement. “With LCRD, we’ll have the opportunity to put laser communications through its paces to test the performance over different weather conditions and times of day to get that experience.”

Getting humans to Mars will be a huge challenge. One of the biggest will be keeping humans alive and sane during the trip, which could take anywhere from 128 to 330 days depending on the speed of the craft and the distance between Earth and Mars. This distance changes due to planetary orbits, but it’s a long flight regardless. Keeping folks alive and happy is paramount, but the need for a high-speed internet in space is also critical, or else we might not be able to efficiently talk with our brave explorers once they land on the henceforth forbidding red planet. Even though it sounds like science fiction, a laser internet in space might be the answer.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

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