NASA reveals plan to bring broadband speeds to deep space missions

15 Feb 2017

Soyuz spacecraft illustration. Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

The painfully slow data transmission speeds used by NASA spacecraft might be a thing of the past, as the agency plans two missions that could bring broadband speeds to deep space.

Reminiscent of dial-up days

While someone on the moon might be able to get better broadband than many parts of rural Ireland, the same cannot be said for spacecraft on deep space missions.

Even using our most advanced data transmission equipment, space agency crews on the ground have only been able to achieve a maximum speed of just a few megabits per second (Mbps).

Since humans first began to send spacecraft out of our planet’s orbit, NASA and other agencies have relied on radio wave transmissions, which have worked well when covering huge distances, but aren’t very fast.

For example, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently has a maximum data transmission speed of just 6Mbps, which means the vast quantities of scientific data and images that are returned take an extremely long time to arrive.

10-fold increase in speed

But now, NASA has revealed that two future missions could allow for broadband speeds comparable with the fastest broadband connections available on the market.

While both radio and lasers travel at the speed of light, lasers travel in a higher-frequency bandwidth, which means that spacecraft will be able to have data transfer speeds that are 10 times faster than existing craft.

NASA said that high data rates will allow researchers to gather science faster, study sudden events such as dust storms or spacecraft landings, and even send video from the surface of other planets.

Laser missions

Illustration of a spacecraft using laser communications. Image: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Amber Jacobson (producer)

The Psyche mission

This includes the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, which is due for launch in 2019, and will beam laser signals almost 40,000km from a ground station in California to a satellite in geostationary orbit, and then to another relay station.

This will be followed by the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC), scheduled to be launched into space in 2023 as part of the planned Psyche mission to observe a metallic asteroid. The latter was valued by one researcher at an eye-watering $10 quintillion.

With the DSOC equipment on board, this part of the mission will aim to hit a bullseye using a deep space laser, returning communication to Earth.

For astronauts both now and in the future, laser communications could overcome one of the greatest worries of space agencies such as NASA: isolation.

For future colonisers of Mars, the distance between our two planets would result in a limited form of communication based on current technology, but not with laser communications.

“It will eventually allow for applications like giving each astronaut his or her own video feed, or sending back higher-resolution, data-rich images faster,” said Abi Biswas, supervisor of the optical communications systems group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic