The Ultimate Long Distance Communication

August 19, 2009
The Ultimate Long Distance Communication
This image shows cratered regions near the moon's Mare Nubium region, as photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA

Anyone who's vacationed in the mountains or lived on a farm knows that it's hard to get good internet access or a strong cell phone signal in a remote area. Communicating across great distances has always been a challenge. So when NASA engineers designed the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), they knew it would need an extraordinary communications system.

Over the next year, the LRO, NASA's diligent robotic scout, will collect more information about the moon's surface and environment than any previous mission. It takes a powerful system to send all of this information more than 238,800 miles back to Earth.

With this new amplifier, LRO can transmit 461 gigabytes of data per day. That's more information than you can find in a four-story library. And it transmits this information at a rate of up to 100 megabytes per second. By comparison, typical high-speed internet service provides about 1 to 3 megabytes per second.

L-3 Communications Electron Technologies built the amplifier under the supervision of NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. The device uses electrodes in a to amplify microwave signals to high power. It's ideal for sending large amounts of data over a long distance because it provides more power and more efficiency than its alternative, the transistor amplifier.

As the orbiter collects information about the moon's geography, climate and environment, the communication system transmits this information to a receiver at a Ka band antenna network at White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. Scientists are using the data to compile high-resolution, 3D maps of the lunar surface.

Traveling Wave Tube Amplifiers have been used for other planetary missions, such as Kepler and Cassini, but previous designs were less powerful. According to Rainee Simons, chief of Glenn's Electron and Optoelectronic Device Branch, engineers had to redesign the internal circuitry of the amplifier.

"In order to provide the power and frequency needed to send communications from the vicinity of the moon, it had to be custom designed and handmade," he said.

The Ultimate Long Distance Communication
This image shows cratered regions near the moon's Mare Nubium region, as photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Credit: NASA

The orbiter's Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier is also more efficient than previous amplifiers. When it comes to launching satellites, weight means money. The heavier the spacecraft, the more fuel it needs to reach orbit. Because the new amplifier packs more power into a lighter design than previous microwave amplifiers, it's cheaper to fly.

The amplifier underwent vigorous spaceflight testing -- including vibration, thermal vacuum, radiation and electromagnetic interference tests -- to ensure that it could withstand the intense conditions of launch and lunar orbit.

Simons, Peterson and other members of the Glenn team were on standby when LRO entered its final orbit and began transmitting data. They were thrilled to hear that it's working properly, not only because LRO is a vital step toward returning humans to the moon, but also because they believe the new amplifier can improve life on Earth in countless ways.

If used on communication satellites, it could allow for much better tracking, monitoring and control of transoceanic flights and ships traveling beyond the reach of radar.

It also could enable real-time data transfer from future Earth-orbiting satellites. Such satellites are used to track migratory animals, endangered species, icebergs, volcanic eruptions and forest fires, and to aid in search and rescue operations. They're used to study climate change and meteorology as well.

According to Simons, by collecting more timely data about the interaction of our atmosphere, ocean and land, we could save lives and property during severe weather.

"This technology has the potential to create a better world," he said.

Source: by Jan Wittry (SGT, Inc.), NASA's Glenn Research Center

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Damon_Hastings
5 / 5 (1) Aug 19, 2009
And it transmits this information at a rate of up to 100 megabytes per second. By comparison, typical high-speed internet service provides about 1 to 3 megabytes per second.

Hmm... you mean "megabits", right? That's how bandwidth is usually measured -- and most low-to-mid range internet service is 1 to 3 Mbps (megabits per second).
Fazer
not rated yet Aug 19, 2009
Hmmm, I think they do mean bytes. 1-3 MBytes times 8 bits is 8-24 Mbits, which is about normal for High Speed Internet. I get about 10 Mbits over cable, and I don't pay for the fastest. I think FIOS is about 25 Mbits.

Either way, that is pretty good service from the moon!
TJ_alberta
1 / 5 (1) Aug 19, 2009
is this an ad for L-3 Communications Electron Technologies' TWTs ?
dachpyarvile
not rated yet Aug 19, 2009
I get 12 Mbps but could get 20 Mbps if I wanted it. FIOS can get up to 50 Mbps using current tech.
Uri
5 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2009
Has to be megabits/sec or the average transmission speed is much lower than the max. Otherwise the 461 Gigabytes / day is way low. @ 100 Megabytes/sec they could transmit 461 Gigabytes in ~ 1 hours 17 minutes.

100 megabytes/sec also could be raw data rate IE not accounting for forward error correction, where the 461 Gigabytes / day could be just the data payload... need more info
dachpyarvile
5 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2009
Satellites and space communications arrays do not transmit data 24/7. They transmit when given commands to transmit.
John_balls
not rated yet Aug 20, 2009
Hmmm, I think they do mean bytes. 1-3 MBytes times 8 bits is 8-24 Mbits, which is about normal for High Speed Internet. I get about 10 Mbits over cable, and I don't pay for the fastest. I think FIOS is about 25 Mbits.

Either way, that is pretty good service from the moon!

I have the 25mbs fios package and they also offer 50mbs if you want to pony up the extra cash.
holoman
4 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2009
quantum entanglement the ultimate communication ?
Uri
5 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2009
Satellites and space communications arrays do not transmit data 24/7. They transmit when given commands to transmit.


Understood, but the article claims "it can" transmit that amount of data / day. That would seem to indicate an upper bound. Its also likely behind the moon a fair amount as well so its likely transmitting quite a bit less than 24 hours a day.
stonehat
not rated yet Aug 20, 2009
Does the author of the article:
1. Understand the meaning of the word "Ultimate" ?
2. Understand that there are places that are further away than the moon ?

dachpyarvile
5 / 5 (2) Aug 20, 2009
Satellites and space communications arrays do not transmit data 24/7. They transmit when given commands to transmit.


Understood, but the article claims "it can" transmit that amount of data / day. That would seem to indicate an upper bound. Its also likely behind the moon a fair amount as well so its likely transmitting quite a bit less than 24 hours a day.


Yes, the devices will communicate from time to time, likely between two to four times a day and that data will be the total maximum for that day. Most days will not produce that much data unless commanded otherwise.

Additionally, the communications speeds for previous equipment is much less. Even with the new system there will be bandwidth overhead and communication transmission and receipt delays due to the distance between the earth and the moon (and, in the case of use of satellites, additional bandwidth overhead and communications delays due to using satellites as relays for out of line-of-site communication), which will limit the amount of data to be sent overall.

Still, compared to all the outdated technology this is the ultimate long distance communication and command system.

Will they come up with something better in the future? Sure! Something faster? Certainly! But, for now, this new system is the ultimate system that we can have at current technology. I think it a wonderful advance. To me, the article is no exaggeration.

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