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27 May, 2014 16:02

Moon gets Wi-Fi: NASA and MIT demonstrate how wireless broadband connection works in space

Moon gets Wi-Fi: NASA and MIT demonstrate how wireless broadband connection works in space

Checking your Facebook status or sending an Instagram photo from space could become reality, as a group of researchers from MIT and NASA believe they have come up with a way of establishing a decent wireless connection between Earth and the Moon.

The two organizations have demonstrated for the first time that data communication technology can provide people in space, with the same sort of internet connectivity that we enjoy at home. It would not take hours to send a simple message either, as the team says it is possible to process large data transfers and even high definition video streaming.

"Communicating at high data rates from Earth to the moon with laser beams is challenging because of the 400,000-kilometer distance spreading out the light beam," Mark Stevens of MIT Lincoln Laboratory said in a press release published by the Optical Society.

"It's doubly difficult going through the atmosphere, because turbulence can bend light, causing rapid fading or dropouts of the signal at the receiver."

Four separate telescopes are used from a ground terminal in New Mexico, which transmits the signal to the moon. A laser transmitter that can send information as coded pulses of invisible infrared light feeds into each of the telescopes.

 Image from esc.gsfc.nasa.gov

The distance between Earth and the Moon is vast - just under 400 thousand kilometers. However, the team has successfully managed to transfer data at a rate of 19.44 megabytes per second and impressively has managed to download data at a rate of 622Mbps.

Due to the amount of turbulence in the air, each of the four telescopes, which are used beam the connection to the moon, send their signals through different paths. This will mean they all experience different bending effects from the atmosphere, but increases the chance that one of the signals will make contact with the receiver, which is connected to a satellite currently orbiting the moon.

The satellite also has a telescope, which collects the laser beam and focuses it into an optical fiber. A photo detector turns the pulses of light into electrical pulses, and from there they are converted into data.

It may sound like a lottery, given all the difficulties to get the signal to the moon and in fact less than one billionth of a watt from a 40-watt signal is actually received by the satellite. Nevertheless, Stevens says that this is ten times the amount needed in order to set up a reliable connection, so sending a selfie from the moon in seconds may become a reality, sooner rather than later.

NASA and MIT will present their findings at the CLEO laser technology conference in California on 9 June.

Design drawing of the optical module on the satellite showing the telescope and gimbal (pivoted support) / NASA