Making Our Galactic Deep-Space Network a National Priority for Mars and Beyond

November 28, 2018 Updated: November 28, 2018

There was no shortage of cheers, hugs, and shared congratulations at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Nov. 26, after NASA’s InSight mission successfully touched down on the surface of Mars.

The InSight team was jubilant after Mission Control received the success tones beamed back from MarCo A and B—two small neighboring satellites no bigger than suitcases (called CubeSats) that hitched a ride with the InSight lander—and even more so when the first image of the Martian surface came back, its lens polluted with grains of beautiful dust and red coloring from the Martian sand.

That beamed-back image was delivered via a new technological experiment: a CubeSat relay that takes signals from a lander or satellite—ultra-high-frequency radio (UHF) waves—and amplifies those UHF signals for transport across the galaxy back to Earth.

Experiments such as this are profound because NASA’s Deep Space satellite communications system is aging—it’s much slower than the Earth-based internet—and because investments in space-based communication are very necessary, considering the fleet of spacecraft likely headed for Mars in the next few years.

Humans desire not just to hear tones but to see beautiful images, and even videos, of the Red Planet. Amazon’s huge reInvent meeting dedicated an entire session this week to simply streaming back live coverage of the InSight landing—amazing in its own right, but not as amazing as a beautiful, live video feed of Mars could be.

Deep Space Communication

Deep space-based communication today is nowhere near the speeds of Earth-based broadband internet, and is similar to cellphone-based 4G communication (soon to be 5G), depending on the distance of the remote celestial body compared to Earth and the number of intermediate “hops” or “relay assets” located at that particular body.

Communication is based on radio waves, which is electromagnetic radiation that travels at the speed of light. Radio waves are much slower than other mediums—such as lasers—but beneficial because they tend to travel across long distances much better than other mechanisms, are reliable, and their “bandwidth,” or set of frequencies that can be used, is well regulated and known.

NASA has built a planetary network of assets that communicate using radio waves. These assets are sent commands via radio waves from the ground-based Deep Space Network (DSN)—massive antennas located in Goldstone, California; Madrid, Spain; and Canberra, Australia—and the assets perform functions and return information using radio waves that travel through space back to the DSN.

The DSN is used by the United States and is a major international asset used by partners in Europe, Japan, and India, to name a few. The DSN will get even more crowded by 2020, as the United States and other countries gear up for a slew of Mars-based missions and activity that require critical support from DSN stations to command and track new missions launching in that timeframe.

An armada of Mars missions—including Mars 2020, ExoMars, and a Chinese orbiter, lander, and rover—are the tip of the iceberg in an impending Mars traffic jam that has led John Grunsfeld, an astronaut and current associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, to put a priority on reliable and faster deep space communication using the DSN for Mars, and throughout the galaxy.

Aging Infrastructure, Possible Investments

Any network on Earth or in space requires more than point-to-point communications; it requires high redundancy. That is why—besides the DSN on the ground and assets in space—to make communication actually work, you need more assets. Each spacecraft orbiter that remains in orbit around a planet and has a communication antenna supporting radio waves has the potential to serve as a relay asset, supporting redundant communication and making the network more resilient.

The United States, Europe, and India have a fleet of orbiters surrounding Mars, which includes the United States’ Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the European Space Agency’s Mars Express, and India’s Mangalyaan, that can help to serve as relays in a Mars-to-Earth network. These relays take communications from the surface of Mars and then relay them through the galaxy to Earth by repeating those communications much faster than can be done directly from the surface of Mars. This is what the MarCO CubeSats just helped to do with InSight.

However, the biggest problem looming with some of these assets is their age. Odyssey was launched in 2001 and MRO in 2005, and as noted, these critical assets need replacement as their service remotely circling the Red Planet has taken a toll on the physical hardware, and, moreover, the nominal mission shelf life for these assets has been greatly eclipsed.

In short, we are on borrowed time and we must replace these assets with newer orbiters that can also serve as assets in the Mars-to-Earth relay network. CubeSats will likely play a low-cost, reliable, and significant role in replenishment and expansion of Mars relay networks.

In addition to assigning more assets to the network, we should also invest in other forms of Deep Space communications than radio waves. One of the most promising technologies in that area is the use of lasers for communications.

Lasers

Lasers use a lot less power than radio-wave-based hardware, they are smaller (in mass), and there isn’t a crowded set (yet) of nation states using this form of communication. The United States and NASA have already demonstrated the use of lasers via the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) technology mission. OPALS deployed a laser-based communication module on the International Space Station (ISS), which showed that lasers could be used to downlink a series of videos from the ISS to Earth.

We need more OPALS and we need lasers in production and use in an intergalactic network so people can get closer to the ability to see live-stream videos not just of the people on Earth celebrating Mars landings, but of the Mars landings from Mars.

Encouraging words related to these investments were made by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during the InSight landing broadcast on NASA.tv. He directly referenced the need for more complete and robust Deep Space communication when he said, “We’re going to need more communications architecture around Mars,” and indicated that he’d put in a budget request to the Office of Management and Budget for a review that intensifies the investments in a Mars communication architecture.

Taking the NASA administrator’s statement and one from Grunsfeld, in which he said, “Our success in exploring Mars, to unravel the mysteries of the Red Planet, depends on having high-bandwidth communication with Earth and overhead imaging,” it is an encouraging agenda for those here on Earth wanting to see those live streams of not just autonomous robots on Mars, but potentially future human visitors in the 2030s.

Chris Mattmann is a principal data scientist and associate chief technology and innovation officer in the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Video credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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