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.

June 3rd, 2015

Mars Missions to Pause Commanding in June, Due to Sun NASA

In June 2015, Mars will swing almost directly behind the sun from Earth’s perspective, and this celestial geometry will lead to diminished communications with spacecraft at Mars.

The arrangement of the sun between Earth and Mars is called Mars solar conjunction. It occurs about every 26 months as the two planets travel in their sun-centered orbits. The sun disrupts radio communications between the planets during the conjunction period. To prevent spacecraft at Mars from receiving garbled commands that could be misinterpreted or even harmful, the operators of Mars orbiters and rovers temporarily stop sending any commands.

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

December 18th, 2013

An Updated Mars Exploration Family Portrait The Planetary Society

The Mars Exploration Family Portrait shows every dedicated spacecraft mission to Mars, and now includes India’s Mars Orbiter Mission and NASA’s MAVEN. The dates listed are for launch.

May 5th, 2005

Mars Telecommunications Orbiter: Interplanetary Broadband

Lockheed Martin Space Systems is expected to land a $500 million contract to build the Mars Telecommunication Orbiter, said Roger Gibbs, MTO project manager at JPL in Pasadena, California. The MTO is intended by NASA to pioneer the use of lasers in planet-to-planet communication; the intended launch date will be sometime in 2009. The Mars Telecommunication Orbiter will be the first interplanetary spacecraft whose main mission is to provide communications services to other missions. It will orbit Mars at a higher altitude than most orbiters, about 2,800 miles above the Martian surface. This will provide an enhanced line of site to Earth. The spacecraft will communicate with Earth via two radio bands and a new optical communications terminal, which will demonstrate the use of a near-infrared laser beam for interplanetary communications.

March 12th, 2005

NASA Mars Program Under Scrutiny


February 28th, 2005

An Earth-Mars Laser Link SpaceDaily

Researchers will announce some of the latest breakthroughs and innovations in optics-based communications at OFC/NFOEC 2005-a joining together of two leading meetings in the optical communications community. OFC/NFOEC (Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition/National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference) will take place at the Anaheim Convention Center between March 6 and 11, 2005.

November 15th, 2004

NASA To Test Laser Communications With Mars Spacecraft

Work is underway to establish the first interplanetary laser communication link. The $300 million NASA experiment, if successful, will connect robotic spacecraft at Mars with scientists back on Earth via a beam of light traveling some 300 million kilometers. For scientists eager to download bandwidth-intensive imagery and other data collected by planetary orbiters, probes and landers, the laser communications would offer a dramatic breakthrough in the amounts of information spacecraft can reliably transmit back to Earth.

September 13th, 2004

Testing Deep Space Laser Communications TelecomDirect News

When astronauts first touch down on Mars, they may talk back to Earth on a direct laser link rather than over a conventional radio. The light-based technology could also be used to communicate with future robotic spacecraft. NASA and MIT Lincoln Laboratory researchers are laying the groundwork for the first interplanetary laser communications system. In 2010, the Mars Laser Communication Demonstration (MLCD) will test the first deep-space laser communication link, which promises to transmit data at a rate nearly ten times higher than any existing interplanetary radio communication connection

August 6th, 2004

MIT-NASA team to test first interplanetary laser communication link MIT