June 5th, 2019

An Atomic Clock for Deep Space

A glimpse of the Deep Space Atomic Clock in the middle bay of the General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems Orbital Test Bed spacecraft.
Credits: NASA

NASA’s Orbital Test Bed satellite is scheduled for launch via a SpaceX Falcon Heavy on June 22, with live streaming here. Although two dozen satellites from various institutions will be aboard the launch vehicle, the NASA OTB satellite itself houses multiple payloads on a single platform, including a modular solar array and a programmable satellite receiver. The component that’s caught my eye, though, is the Deep Space Atomic Clock, a technology demonstrator that points to better navigation in deep space without reliance on Earth-based atomic clocks.

Consider current methods of navigation. An accurate reading on a spacecraft’s position depends on a measurement of the time it takes for a transmission to flow between a ground station and the vehicle. Collect enough time measurements, converting them to distance, and the spacecraft’s trajectory is established. We know how to do atomic clocks well — consider the US Naval Observatory’s use of clocks reliant on the oscillation of atoms in its cesium and hydrogen maser clocks. Atomic clocks at Deep Space Network ground stations make possible navigational readings on spacecraft at the expense of bulk and communications lag.

While GPS and other Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) use onboard atomic clocks, the technologies currently in play are too heavy for operations on spacecraft designed for exploration far from Earth. That puts the burden on communications, as distant spacecraft process a signal from an atomic clock on the ground. What the spacecraft lacks is autonomy.

March 18th, 2019

Is the best way to communicate with future astronauts on Mars by texting?

Shannon Kobs Nawotniak

Texting may be one of the best ways to communicate with future astronauts on Mars and other planets.

This is one of the conclusions of a study published by Idaho State University geosciences Associate Professor Shannon Kobs Nawotniak in a special collection edition of the journal Astrobiology that was published March.

The article she was the main author on was titled “Opportunities and Challenges of Promoting Scientific Dialog throughout Execution of Future Science-Driven Extravehicular Activity.” In this article Nawotniak compared communicating through voice, video, still images, text messaging and other methods.

“Text-based communication is far preferable to audio transmission over latency [the time delay caused by the distance between the planets], allowing message recipients to prioritize their own tasks in the moment and maintain a written record of communication for review throughout the EVA (extravehicular activity or “spacewalk”) as desired,” she said in the article.

Texting has several other advantages and could be used in conjunction with other communication methods.

September 6th, 2018

Communications Infrastructure On Mars Could Be The Envy Of Earth

A conceptual drawing of the MarCO cubesats orbiting Mars. NASA

You’re an astronaut bound for Mars, a dusty and barren planet with an atmosphere composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide that on a good day is 139,808,518 miles from Earth, a stone’s throw from a galactic perspective but a nine-month trip for you and your crewmates.

As your spacecraft—perhaps it’s NASA’s Orion crew vehicle or SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket or a variation of Boeing’s Starliner—hurtles away from home, communication becomes increasingly delayed. At first the lag is only a few seconds, but as the weeks go by, real-time communication becomes impossible. Depending on the relative position of Earth and Mars as they orbit around the Sun, the delay by the time you reach Mars could exceed 20 minutes, creating 40-minutes of silence in a two-way conversation. Incredibly, the 3 to 22 minutes it takes—again, depending on the positions of the planets—for information to travel from Earth to Mars at the speed of light is nothing compared to the 4 days it took a message to travel from New York City to Washington DC at the speed of stagecoach in 1800.

Although our communications capabilities have evolved greatly in the last 200 years, it’s operationally and psychologically critical to continue searching for new ways to achieve reliable communication between explorers and our pale blue dot. A study conducted by NASA on the International Space Station in 2014, for example, found that even a 50-second delay frustrated crewmembers and that real-time communication improves both performance and morale.

Yet, the time delay isn’t the only communications challenge you’ll face on the journey to Mars. Another is the quality of the signal you receive. The radio waves that currently carry wireless transmissions—including your WiFi signal—aren’t very data efficient and lose strength over distance due to their longer wavelengths. That’s why NASA is investing heavily in laser communications research. Lasers operate on shorter wavelengths, allowing for more data per wave and superior signal fidelity. They also require smaller transmitters and receivers and use less energy than radio technologies. One day, these laser communications systems could theoretically enable HD video to be streamed between Earth and Mars.

December 13th, 2016

Trump could replace Obama’s asteroid catcher with a SpaceX-backed mission to Mars

Getty Images/Shutterstock/NASA; illustration by Dave Mosher/Business Insider

Getty Images/Shutterstock/NASA; illustration by Dave Mosher/Business Insider

When Donald Trump is sworn in on January 20, there’s a good chance he could scrap one of President Obama’s boldest visions for NASA: the asteroid redirect mission, or ARM.

ARM would ostensibly launch a robotic probe to an asteroid in 2023, capture the space rock, and tow it near the moon. Next, astronauts would ride NASA’s shiny new Space Launch System and Orion space capsule (which aren’t finished yet) to visit and dig into the asteroid sometime in 2025.

But ARM’s slipping deadlines, ballooning costs, redundancy with the recently launched asteroid-sampling OSIRIS-REx probe, and seeming incongruence with the space agency’s larger ambitions to send people to Mars will almost certainly doom the mission, Eric Berger reported for Ars Technica in February. (The Trump-friendly House Committee on Science, Space and Technology also recently sent an unfriendly letter about ARM to NASA, and it appears to be yet another presumed nail in ARM’s coffin.)

So what could a Trump-controlled NASA replace it with?

Physicist and former astronaut John Grunsfeld, who recently retired as the leader of NASA’s science mission directorate, is pitching a popular idea involving a retrieving a sample of Martian soil, as Berger reported on Monday.

June 15th, 2015

NASA Prepares for First Interplanetary CubeSats NASA

When NASA launches its next mission on the journey to Mars – a stationary lander in 2016 – the flight will include two CubeSats. This will be the first time CubeSats have flown in deep space. If this flyby demonstration is successful, the technology will provide NASA the ability to quickly transmit status information about the main spacecraft after it lands on Mars.

The twin communications-relay CubeSats, being built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, constitute a technology demonstration called Mars Cube One (MarCO). CubeSats are a class of spacecraft based on a standardized small size and modular use of off-the-shelf technologies. Many have been made by university students, and dozens have been launched into Earth orbit using extra payload mass available on launches of larger spacecraft.

May 4th, 2015

Traffic Around Mars Gets Busy NASA

NASA has beefed up a process of traffic monitoring, communication and maneuver planning to ensure that Mars orbiters do not approach each other too closely.

Last year’s addition of two new spacecraft orbiting Mars brought the census of active Mars orbiters to five, the most ever. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission joined the 2003 Mars Express from ESA (the European Space Agency) and two from NASA: the 2001 Mars Odyssey and the 2006 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The newly enhanced collision-avoidance process also tracks the approximate location of NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, a 1997 orbiter that is no longer working.

It’s not just the total number that matters, but also the types of orbits missions use for achieving their science goals. MAVEN, which reached Mars on Sept. 21, 2014, studies the upper atmosphere. It flies an elongated orbit, sometimes farther from Mars than NASA’s other orbiters and sometimes closer to Mars, so it crosses altitudes occupied by those orbiters. For safety, NASA also monitors positions of ESA’s and India’s orbiters, which both fly elongated orbits

January 20th, 2015

Elon Musk Explores Internet for Mars Colonies Discovery

Marsnet is coming…
We take the Internet and constant connectivity for granted on Earth, but once you take a step into space, things start to get a lot less broadband, and a lot more dial-up. So as we look into our future, when we have human settlements on Mars, will there be a Mars Internet or “Marsnet”? These questions have been asked by SpaceX founder Elon Musk and he has announced plans to boost connectivity in space, potentially partnering with Google. But this isn’t just about ensuring future Mars colonists can access their Netflix accounts; like most space endeavors, an off-world Internet infrastructure would have huge benefits to our daily lives on Earth.
“Our focus is on creating a global communications system that would be larger than anything that has been talked about to date,” Musk said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek before his announcement on Friday about establishing a SpaceX office in Seattle, Washington.

November 26th, 2013

Historic Demonstration Proves Laser Communication Possible NASA

In the early morning hours of Oct. 18, NASA’s Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) made history, transmitting data from lunar orbit to Earth at a rate of 622 Megabits-per-second (Mbps). That download rate is more than six times faster than previous state-of-the-art radio systems flown to the moon.
“It was amazing how quickly we were able to acquire the first signals, especially from such a distance,” said Don Cornwell, LLCD manager. “I attribute this success to the great work accomplished over the years by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (MIT/LL) and their partnership with NASA.”

October 31st, 2012

Mars rover gets instructions daily from NASA via a network of antennae The Washington Post

We live in a chaos of electromagnetic energy. Visible, infrared and ultraviolet light courses omnidirectionally from the sun. A fraction of it bathes our planet, while some bounces off other planets, moons, comets and meteoroids. The visible light from stars up to 4,000 light-years away can be seen from Earth with the naked eye. With instruments, astronomers can detect gamma rays from stars 13 billion light-years away. Radio waves from remote galaxies help Earth’s official timekeepers monitor our planet’s path around the sun.
Once per day, a minuscule stream of radio waves joins this cacophony, making the 13.8-minute trip from an antenna on Earth to an SUV-size machine parked on the surface of Mars. Those short-lived waves represent our way — our only way — of communicating with Curiosity, the rover that NASA landed on Mars in August.

August 30th, 2011

NASA Tests Communication Scenarios For Near-Earth Asteroids Irish Weather Online

NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS) team has commenced testing communication scenarios for near-Earth asteroids.
The RATS team also is evaluates technology, human-robotic systems and extravehicular equipment in the high desert near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Field testing provides a knowledge base that helps scientists and engineers design, build and operate better equipment, and establish requirements for operations and procedures. The Arizona desert has a rough, dusty terrain and extreme temperature swings that simulate conditions that may be encountered on other surfaces in space.