New Space and Tech

Yes, Virginia, You Will Be Able to Download your iTunes on Mars, Eventually

By Marc Boucher
August 8, 2014
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Yes, Virginia, You Will Be Able to Download your iTunes on Mars, Eventually
This illustration depicts a concept for operation of an optical communications system on NASA's Mars Telecommunications Orbiter. Credit: NASA.

Our world is becoming rapidly connected and as humanity ventures off planet they will take their appetites for LOLz, cat memes, silly YouTube videos, and iTunes with them making a need for space-based internet and other broadband services a reality according to panelists speaking on “The Future of Space-Based Communications” at the AIAA SPACE 2014 Forum in San Diego.
Currently, there’s not much going on in space in terms of broadband based communication systems. Chris Hoeber the senior vice president and chief technology officer at Technology & Innovation, SSL, explained that “nobody will put a satellite up to talk to mars tomorrow, there’s nobody to talk too. It’s a chicken and the egg situation: you need something there to make it work.”

But the demand is coming, as Patrick Rayermann, Col. U.S. Air Force (retired) and director of business development at ASGI – Airbus Defence and Space explained: “CubeSats, small sats, space tourism, mars exploration – as we have this increasing population of individuals and devices in space they will expect it to be like it is here, if it is not they will be grumpy, complain, lose data, someone will step in, and they will be commercial if they aren’t government, to make money.” The panelists also noted that as Earth’s population grows, and the number of devices that need broadband to function increases, we will not only need robust broadband capacity in the heavens but here on Earth as well.

The panel identified two potential systems that will help with both space and terrestrial communications needs in the future. The first was solely optical in nature, laser based technology which is “20 years away, but which will dominate the industry when they get here due to carrying capacity,” according to Hoeber.

The second was combined optical and radio frequency (RF) systems, offering increased transmission speeds and “bringing with them intense cost savings,” according to Adam Schlesinger, a communication systems engineer at the NASA Johnson Spaceflight Center. Schlesinger went on to say that within “15 years the optical/RF systems will be used for space-based relay and direct-to-Earth communication.”

Upkar Dhaliwal, president and chief executive officer at Future Wireless Technologies felt that there might be a third, as yet unknown solution, that will be necessitated by “the rise of the machines,” or an exponential explosion of devices which forces firms to find innovative solutions now. Dhaliwal added that once we “establish space based solutions, we should see transmission speeds beyond 100 gigabytes per second.”

Barriers to further development at this time are the current lack of demand for space based transmission solutions; the lack of appropriate infrastructure; and, most importantly, a need to rewrite the policies which currently regulate the transmission spectrum to allow users a more flexible and varied approach to finding optimal transmission pathways. Dhaliwal pointed out, that working with the spectrum requirements won’t be that hard as “today’s smartphones can shift through the spectrum rapidly to find the best pathway, but still stay in the mandated ranges.

All of the panelists were confident that both the technologies and needed policies would evolve, as Hoeber concluded “people in the room here, will look back on this panel in 40 years and think what I’m saying is quaint, because by then it will be normal to log on the internet and get your message back from Mars in 84 minutes.”

By Duane Hyland, special to SpaceRef

Schlesinger in a follow-up to this article wanted to point out that the real drive of future space based communications will be the “Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) protocol suite that NASA and others are developing.” He continued “DTN is a protocol suite that extends the terrestrial Internet capabilities into highly stressed data communication environments, with long delays and frequent disruptions, where the conventional Internet protocols do not work.” Beyond space based uses, the protocol also promises to play a role in “military/tactical communication, some forms of disaster response, underwater communication, and to meet the communication need of some forms of ad-hoc sensor/actuator networks. It may also include Internet connectivity in places where performance may suffer such as developing parts of the world,” according to NASA.

Updated: 9:00 a.m. ET, August 9, 2014.

SpaceRef co-founder, entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, nature lover and deep thinker.