NASA In Search Of Internet’s Next Generation

NASA In Search Of Internet’s Next Generation

[heading]NASA In Search Of Internet’s Next Generation[/heading]

The question “Is Bitcoin here to stay?” is a common refrain. One that an enthusiast hears often.

It is here to stay, believe many. After all, isn’t a bet for decentralized virtual currencies like Bitcoin merely a bet for the Internet?”

Currently, NASA has developed plans to test a potential new system of human communications, with implications for terrestrial and extra terrestrial data transfer.

NASA plans on launching a new communications technology this Friday which will allow for a record-smashing 600 megabits-per-second downloads. The resulting probe will orbit the moon and send communications back to Earth via lasers.

NASA foresees this as providing a boost for  terrestrial (maybe even extraterrestrial?) internet coverage as well.

In but a few years, commercial internet satellite services are expected to use optical connections – as opposed to today’s radio links – thus providing more bandwidth. A Virginia startup, Laser Light Communications, is in the early stages of designing such a system and hopes to launch a fleet of 12 satellites in four years.


Few companies already provide short-rage airborne optical connections for tasts like connecting campus or office buildings when an obstruction like a river or road makes laying fiber too expensive or impossible.

“There are a bunch of technologies that all come together for new applications and improved service, not just one,” says Heinz Willebrand, president and CEO of Lightpointe, a San Diego-based company whose technology provides up to 2.5 gigabits per second for a few hundred meters.

Among the  new technology in NASA’s moon probe is a superconducting nanowire detector, cooled to 3 degrees Kelvin. The gadget, which was developed at MIT and its Lincoln Laboratory, will detect single photons sent nearly a quarter of a million miles from infrared lasers on an orbiting lunar probe, which is being launched Friday to measure dust in the lunar atmosphere.

Dubbed Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, the new communications platform will deliver six times greater download speeds compared to the fastest radio system used for moon communications. Telescopes that are under one meter in diameter will be used to pick up the signal, although it could be re-engineered in order to provide 2.5 gigabits per second.

“This is demonstrating the first optical data transmission for a deep-ish space mission. If you resize it and partly reëngineer it, you could potentially do it to Mars,” says Don Boroson, the Lincoln Lab researcher who led the project.

Detectors have been installed at three spots because clouds block photons. These detectors are located in California, New Mexico and the Canary Islands. This mission will be a mere test of the system, and most operations will be handled by radio technologies, which are essentially upgraded models of the system that delivered Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man” transmission circa 1969.

Should all go well, optical systems will grow to dominate space transmission in the future, with radio systems serving as a backup.

The system depends not only a nanowire detector, but also on high-speed encoding and decoding of data, as well as a separate set of calculations and adjustments to keep the telescopes pointed at each other.  “There are a bunch of technologies that are new and exciting,” Boroson says.

More exciting is the prospect of a satellite-based all-optical network to augment the ground-based one.

Laser Light Communications is looking to join components for a commercial system that would provide all-optical satellite-to-ground and satellite-to-satellite communications.

The company is looking to supercharge Internet bandwidth around the world with a space-based optical network to complement the global fiber one. The hope is that the system will create shorter continent-spanning links than are available on the ground while bypassing potential bottlenecks. This option also offers greater resiliency than current cables.

A similar idea is Google’s “Project Loon,” envisions balloons circling the Earth in the stratosphere to provide coverage to underserved areas. But that would also use radio signals (see “African Entrepreneurs Deflate Google’s Internet Balloon Idea”), according to Google.

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