NASA speeds up moon-earth communication

Amplifier enables lunar orbiter to send data at 100 Mbit/s

How often do you go to make a call on your cellphone and you're stymied by a bad connection?

Consider trying to make that call from ... well, the moon.

NASA engineers did when they were setting up the communications system that would send massive amounts of data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter across 383,000 kilometres back to Earth. Agency officials recently described the new system that utilises two satellites

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 18. A second satellite, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, lifted off at the same time.

NASA scientists are hoping the two satellites can provide them with new information about the moon. The agency aims to land humans back on the moon by 2020, but those plans are in flux giving the current economic conditions and the Obama administration's review of space missions by NASA.

NASA officials say that getting more information about the moon will be key to any return there.

The Reconnaissance Orbiter is expected to orbit about 49 kilometres above the surface of the moon for the next year as part of an effort to map the moon's surface and find a good landing site for future NASA manned missions there. The orbiter is designed to compile high-resolution 3-D maps of the moon's surface and survey it at many different spectral wavelengths.

According to NASA, the orbiter will amass more information about the moon's surface and environment than any previous mission.

The issue has been how to get all of that data back to scientists on Earth.

To make that happen, NASA is depending on a 13-inch-long tube, called a Travelling Wave Tube Amplifier, which was built by L-3 Communications Electron Technologies. It will enable the orbiter to send massive amounts of images and data at an "unusually fast" rate to a receiver at a K-band antenna network at White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. It is the first high-data rate K-band transmitter to fly on a NASA spacecraft, according to the space agency.

Because of the amplifier, the orbiter should be able to transmit 461 gigabytes of data per day, NASA noted. As well, it transmits the information at a rate of up to 100 megabytes per second, compared to a typical high-speed internet service of about one to three megabytes per second.

"We're sending back more data than ever, and it's nearly real time," says project manager Todd Peterson. According to NASA, the device is a vacuum with electrodes inside geared to amplify microwave signals to high power. It is a good set up for sending large amounts of data over a long distance, because it provides more power and more efficiency than the traditional transistor amplifier, NASA noted.

NASA has used Travelling Wave Tube Amplifiers in other missions, but they weren't as powerful. With the amplifier for the lunar orbiter, engineers redesigned the circuitry and built it by hand.

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