NASA says first space Internet test 'beyond expectations'

Laser communications could replace radio for future robotic and human space missions

NASA scientists say the first tests of what could someday become an outer space Internet have far surpassed their expectations.

"It's been beyond what we expected," said Don Cornwell, the Lunar Laser Communications Mission manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We obviously expected it would work well, but this is even better... Everything going better than we thought it would. We're running these systems error free."

With the tests already going so well, NASA is encouraged that a laser communications system could be the building blocks of an outer space Internet.

"This is the beginning of that," Cornwell told Computerworld. "I think we could have that with delay tolerant networking. This is the beginning."

NASA's lunar spacecraft, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer or LADEE, has begin a monthlong test of a high data-rate laser communication system.

If the system works as planned, similar laser systems are expected to replace radio systems to speed up future satellite communications as well as deep space communications with robots and human exploration crews.

Using a laser for communications would enable astronauts and robots similar to the Mars rover Curiosity or the lunar orbiter, to send and receive far greater data loads, whether they're in orbit around Earth, on the moon or a distant asteroid.

Space exploration is largely about the data. Rovers and astronauts are expected to take measurements, photos and video of distant planets and asteroids. However, if there's a data bottleneck and they can't get that information back to scientists on Earth, the entire mission could be crippled.

The large pipe that laser communications give NASA scientists will become increasingly important as explorations travel farther from Earth.

Cornwell said LADEE ran its first laser test on Oct. 17 and has since run three more. And so far, the communications link-up has worked perfectly every time.

A laser beam sent from one of three Earth stations to the lunar-orbiting spacecraft, which is the size of a tall man, can relay 20 Mbps. The downlink, going from the spacecraft to an Earth station, can relay 622 Mbps. That is six times faster than radio communications from the moon.

Cornwell noted that the laser communications are proving to be able to have six times more bandwidth, using instruments that are half the mass, half the weight and use 25% less power. Those are all significant considerations since weight is a critical factor in space launches and conserving power is important on every spacecraft.

"Oh, it's going to enable a lot of things," said Cornwell. "By halving half the mass or weight, you could put another instrument on a spacecraft or carry a little more fuel to stay in orbit longer. But the big benefit is you can send back more data from wherever you are."

He added that in their initial tests, scientists have already been able to stream high-definition video from the Earth to the spacecraft and then have it sent back to Earth.

"We could send 30 channels of HD video down from the spacecraft," said Cornwell. "For example, you could do telepresence with this. Future missions to the moon or asteroids will have astronauts. They may need to see a doctor or need instructions on how to fix something and they could do it in HD video."

Using laser communications, a robotic rover on Mars could send back high-resolution video of what it's finding on the Red Planet.

Mars is 1,000 times farther away from Earth than the moon is, but there's been nothing so far suggesting the laser system couldn't work from that kind of distance.

"Radio communications are basically tapped out," he said. "Radio communications from Mars -- the best that's been sent is 6 megabits per second on its best day when the planets are close together. But it's generally much less than that. Laser communications from Mars to Earth could carry 250 megabits per second."

In 2017, NASA is expected to launch a laser communications relay demonstration, which is expected to run tests from Earth's orbit for three to five years.

Launched in early September, LADEE's primary mission is to study the moon and its atmosphere. Using three instruments to collect data about the chemical makeup of the lunar atmosphere and variations in its composition, the probe also will capture and analyze dust particles it finds in the moon's atmosphere.

Scientists hope the information will help them better understand Mercury, asteroids and the moons orbiting other planets.

This article, NASA says first space Internet test 'beyond expectations', was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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