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Ultra-fast broadband reaches the moon


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Ultra-fast broadband reaches the moon

NASA announced last week an important milestone toward solar-system-wide ultra-fast broadband. The story hints at long-term opportunities for New Zealand manufacturers. But, as with many press releases, the story is easily mis-interpreted.

It was a simple experiment. A spacecraft orbiting the moon transmitted data back to earth at a rate of 622 megabits per second. I’m not sure how many thousand TV channels could simultaneously ride that carrier. I do know it’s a lot.

NASA’s press release talks up the role of interplanetary broadband in scientific research. “... radio frequency (RF)... is reaching its limit as demand for more data capacity continues to increase. The development and deployment of laser communications will enable NASA to extend communication capabilities such as increased image resolution and 3-D video transmission from deep space.”

Quite right. More importantly, though, broadband communication throughout the solar system and beyond will be vital to the long-term sustainability of human civilisation. It is inevitable that mining companies will need to develop resources on asteroids or other planets. Extra-terrestrial mining will open up the kind of niche markets that excite Kiwi entrepreneurs and engineers, so it’s worth keeping an eye on developments in space technology.

Laser communication will probably be part of a suite of communication technologies designed to support interplanetary travel over the next century or two. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that it won’t satisfy all the technological requirements. Poul Anderson played with the limitations of laser communication in his “Harvest of Stars” tetrilogy. A laser beam is very narrow: If your aim is off, your message won’t get where it’s going. Battling spacecraft tumbling end over end struggle to keep their communication lasers on target. A renegade pilot changes the trajectory of one of the Teramind’s spacecraft, knowing the Teramind will never recover the stolen ship because it has no idea where to aim its laser beam. (The Teramind in these novels is the cybernetic mega-Marxist that controls human society. But not Lunarian society.).

There’s an interesting parallel between space communication and aviation systems. The aviation industry uses different technologies for different tasks. In the early days of jet airliners, they used VHF (very high frequency) radio in “controlled” airspace (usually within 50 miles or so of large airports), and HF (high frequency) outside of controlled airspace. Several new technologies have been introduced since then, but voice communication in air traffic control systems still uses VHF. The proposed new standards retain VHF radio, and “amplitude modulation” (AM), which happens to be the best available technology for this role. Many people, including plenty of electronics engineers, criticise the use of VHF-AM in air traffic control systems. They assume it is obsolete. The aviation industry would not retain VHF-AM if it were obsolete. AM was superseded in many HF systems by SSB, not because SSB was better (it’s not. SSB is a monstrosity), but because this increased the amount of traffic that could be squeezed into the highly congested HF band. This has nothing to do with air traffic control. AM was also superseded in radio broadcasting by FM. That also has nothing to do with air traffic control.

New Zealand was once a world leader in VHF-AM technology. We missed our chance to grab a major share of world market for air traffic control radio equipment, partly because too many decision-makers knew too little about aviation operations and radio technology.

It would be easy to make the same mistake with space communications. NASA’s press release says lasers offer greater bandwidth than radio. Quite true. However, a laser beam is useless unless you know exactly where to aim it. As in air traffic control, space operators will need communication systems capable of wide-area coverage. They’ll use whatever works. It might be a system that’s already in use. It might be something entirely new. Or, it might be a new twist on something we thought we’d seen the last of.

I have no idea how New Zealand can exploit niche-market opportunities in space exploration and mining. I do know that we won’t even recognise those opportunities unless we wrap our imaginations around the operational challenges. Space exploration, mining, and even passenger travel, will be probably be niche markets for some centuries into the future. New Zealand companies have a natural advantage in these kinds of markets, because so many foreign manufacturers over-bureaucratise their operations.

That’s why I think it’s a good idea to keep tabs on developments in space technology.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Parametric Modelling Consultant who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your requirements: hello {a}

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