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Communications of the ACM


Broadband to Mars

Broadband to Mars, illustration

Credit: NASA

In March, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that its planned Orion spacecraft, which could one day carry astronauts to the Moon and Mars, will include a new kind of communication system. Typically, manned and unmanned vehicles and probes use radio waves to send and receive information. For decades, though, scientists have been pushing toward using laser-based communications in space. Lasers are no faster, but they can deliver far more information than radio waves in the same amount of time. NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon were capable of transmitting 51kb worth of data per second, for example, but Orion's planned Laser-Enhanced Mission and Navigation Operational Services (LEMNOS) system could send back more than 80 megabytes each second from the lunar surface.

That stream could be packed with rich scientific data, or it could include ultra-high-resolution video of distant worlds. Scaled-up versions of this system could dispatch movies of dust devils, storms, or even astronauts walking on the surface of Mars. During the six-month-long trip to the Red Planet, space travelers could potentially trade videos with family members back on Earth, and mitigate the psychological toll of the long journey.


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