Recent advances in wireless computing technology could improve deep-space missions like asteroid research and remote spacecraft operations by changing the way signals are sent from Earth. A new method designed to effectively deliver commands and instructions using hundreds of millions of tiny transmitters linked together could also free the giant satellite dishes currently used to send and receive the long-range information for other applications. A research paper describing the scheme for relatively simple high-power transmitters will be published in the October issue of Radio Science, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
The technique is based on a principle known as a phased array, a method to align a number of mini-transmitters alongside one another and direct their combined beam into the sky. Such a system has previously been used for military radar technology, but has only recently become cost effective for civilian use because of improvements in consumer computing technology, according to the paper authored by Louis Scheffer at Cadence Design Systems. He indicates that the advantages from so many individual transmitters, using designs similar to cell phone technology, could include improved reliability and efficiency over currently used systems while reducing the transmission costs associated with the mammoth satellite dishes. Overall, he suggests that the net result could be significantly lowered costs for space communications, more data from science spacecraft, and an increase in planetary and deep-space research that requires remote signals.
Currently, planetary radars and distant spacecraft communications need transmitters with extremely high power, which has been accomplished by combining a strong microwave source with a large reflective antenna. This is now done with giant satellite dishes mechanically steered to a point in the sky. NASAs Goldstone radar, for example, the agencys sensitive, deep-space analysis radar, uses a 500 kilowatt transmitter and a 70-meter [230-foot] reflector for tracking asteroids that may collide with Earth. The large antenna is focused on only a small point in space at a time, and must be adjusted--and occasionally shut down--due to changing weather conditions. In addition, Scheffer points out that while almost all of the worlds largest antennas are used to both send and receive, the powerful transmissions severely hinder their ability to detect faint signals from space.
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