NASA has taken careful aim and fired a blast of data at the moon. Well, actually it hit a satellite orbiting the moon. Nonetheless, the experiment was proclaimed a huge success Wednesday, and, as a result, NASA could one day beam thirty HD channels from the lunar surface 239,000 miles away. It would be the biggest upgrade in space-to earth-communications in more than sixty years.
For the record, the data stream was sent to the Lunar and Atmospheric Dust Environment Explorer, a satellite, which, as its name suggests, spends most of its time collecting and analyzing space dust. Download speeds clocked out at 622 megabits a second. Broadband with a bullet. That’s about six times faster than the most advanced earth-to-space radio transmissions.
That’s right. Radio. While we earthlings fling social messages across the internet at laser speed, NASA depends on the radio and microwave portions of electromagnetic spectrum – think snail mail — to get data to and from from space. Right now if NASA wants to talk to ET, it must roll out a big radio dish to shoot its message into outer space. Not that there’s anything wrong with radio. It has served NASA well during several manned missions to the moon and throughout satellite forays to the very edge of the solar system.
But radio has limited capacity, and NASA is running out of space, so to speak. And while radio ably transmitted Neil Armstrong’s words from the lunar surface, it is less capable of getting more complex data back to Mother Earth. Laser pulses, by contrast, are faster and can carry more detailed images. 3D pictures from deep space would no longer be out of the question. And, just as important, the laser pulse would trip briskly along electromagnetic roads less traveled.
Lest you become moonstruck, take note that NASA’s aim in this test was to ascertain feasibility. The system is nowhere near ready for prime time. To make this work, scientists at ground stations in California, New Mexico and the Canary Islands had to continually shift telescopes to track a signal from a satellite in lunar orbit. Then there’s another problem that many earthlings know well: the signal is optical and cannot penetrate heavy cloud cover. While the lasers worked perfectly, scientists acknowledge a fully operating model would require more power.
That said, NASA sees great implications for space communications and the future of space travel. Not only could the new technology send and receive more sophisticated data, it could also provide timelier communications with astronauts on future missions to deep space.
NASA’s initial aim is not to build a broadcast center on the moon. Phase One would focus on communicating with satellites that conduct less flashy, yet very important, scientific missions. And there would be something for the rest of us. Scientists say the new technology, combined with a future satellite network, will significantly kick up bandwidth strength and reliability back here on earth. Faster computers? You bet. Houston, we have no problem.
Written by Mike Clancy
Delmarva Public Radio