Skip to main content

Fed up with lousy ‘internet’ speeds in space, NASA is doing something about it

nasa lasers broadband space laser internet
With all the technology needed to look after astronauts on the International Space Station and get rovers trundling over the dusty surface of Mars, you’d have thought scientists would’ve sussed out how to get a high-speed “broadband” connection up and running long ago.

Boosting data-transfer speeds beyond the current trickle of a few megabits a second — described by NASA as “a pittance even by dial-up standards” — would allow researchers to “gather science faster” and study events in space in a more timely fashion. It could also speed up the process of getting video back to Earth shot with cameras on far-away planets.

The good news is that scientists believe they’re on the verge of what they’re calling “a broadband moment,” with laser technology set to increase data-transfer speeds by up to 100 times in the next few years.

NASA explains that for the last 60 years or so, it’s been using radio waves to communicate with spacecraft. However, developments in optical communications, in which data is beamed over laser light, present new possibilities for much faster transfer speeds.

In addition, as space missions start to cover greater distances and therefore move further away from Earth, laser technology offers the added value of being able to focus on locations with pinpoint precision, thereby improving the reliability of communications.

“Laser technology is ideal for boosting downlink communications from deep space,” said Abi Biswas, the supervisor of the Optical Communications Systems group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “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.”

But a number of challenges remain. For example, the relevant ground infrastructure is yet to be built, and the facilities will need to be set up in places where the skies are usually clear because clouds, as well as other atmospheric conditions, can interfere with the lasers.

NASA offers an example of the effectiveness of its laser technology: The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently sends science data back to Earth at a mere 6Mbps maximum. A laser setup could increase the maximum data rate to 250Mbps, however — speed that could significantly transform space-to-Earth communications.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
Everything you need to know about SpaceX and NASA’s historic mission
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley (front) participating in SpaceX's flight simulator.

This Wednesday, NASA and SpaceX will launch two astronauts on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS) on the first crewed test flight of the new Crew Dragon capsule.

This launch will be a milestone in the history of American space flight, marking the first time U.S. astronauts have launched from U.S. soil since 2011, and it will also be a carefully choreographed dance representing the culmination of years of work from thousands of scientists, engineers, and administrators across the country.

Read more
About a third of U.S. households lack broadband internet. 5G may change that
d links new 5g home router link nr  dwr 2010

A new report that addresses the topic of broadband internet access in the United States features a startling statistic: Almost a third of U.S. households do not have access to a broadband internet connection.

The report was published by market research company The NPD Group. According to a press release published by The NPD Group on Thursday, July 25, the report, known as the Rural America and Technology report, found that 31% of U.S. households didn’t have a broadband connection. In this case, a broadband internet connection would be defined as a connection that provides either a minimum of 25Mbps download speed or greater. The report notes that 31% of households without broadband would work out to “roughly 100 million consumers” who don’t have access to broadband connections and that most of these households are in rural markets.

Read more
Meet the game-changing pitching robot that can perfectly mimic any human throw
baseball hitter swings and misses

Who’s your favorite baseball pitcher? Shane McClanahan? Sandy Alcantara? Justin Verlander? Whoever you said, two of the top sports-tech companies in the U.S. -- Rapsodo and Trajekt Sports -- have teamed up to build a robot version of them, and the results are reportedly uncannily accurate.

Okay, so we’re not talking about walking-talking-pitching standalone robots, as great a sci-fi-tinged MLB ad as that would be. However, Rapsodo and Trajekt have combined their considerable powers to throw a slew of different technologies at the problem of building a machine that's able to accurately simulate the pitching style of whichever player you want to practice batting against -- and they may just have pulled it off, too.

Read more