NASA lunar probe blasts 461 gigabytes of moon data per day back home

A 13-inch-long tube, called a Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier, is making it possible for NASA scientists to receive massive amounts of images and data about the moon's surface and environment

LRO calling
On its current space scouting mission, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is using a pumped up communications device to deliver 461 gigabytes of data and images per day, at a rate of up to 100 Mbps.

As the first high data rate K-band transmitter to fly on a NASA spacecraft, the 13-inch-long tube, called a Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier, is making it possible for NASA scientists to receive massive amounts of images and data about the moon's surface and environment.

The amplifier was built by L-3 Communications Electron Technologies in conjunction with NASA's Glenn Research Center. The device uses electrodes in a vacuum tube to amplify microwave signals to high power. It's ideal for sending large amounts of data over a long distance because it provides more power and more efficiency than its alternative, the transistor amplifier, NASA stated.

A traveling wave tube is needed for high frequency and high power applications such as deep space communications because of its higher power capability and efficiency when compared to solid-state devices, NASA stated. The amplifier uses a new waveguide for input and output that adds strength to withstand mechanical shock and vibrations for enhanced reliability while traveling in the harsh environment of space.

In addition, the amplifier can be used to increase the rate of data transfer from Earth-orbiting satellites for improved weather forecasting and Earth observation for climate change. Possible future applications for the amplifier include air traffic control of transoceanic flights and tracking ships at sea, NASA stated. It also could enable real-time data transfer from future Earth-orbiting satellites. Such satellites are used to track migratory animals, endangered species, icebergs, volcanic eruptions and forest fires, and to aid in search and rescue operations, NASA stated.

For now though, the LRO collects information about the moon's geography, climate and environment transmits this information to a receiver at a Ka band antenna network at White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico. Scientists are using the data to compile high-resolution, 3D maps of the lunar surface.

According to NASA, Traveling Wave Tube Amplifiers have been used for other planetary missions, such as Kepler and Cassini, but previous designs were less powerful. According to Rainee Simons, chief of Glenn's Electron and Optoelectronic Device Branch, engineers had to redesign the internal circuitry of the amplifier.

The orbiter's Traveling Wave Tube Amplifier is also more efficient than previous amplifiers. When it comes to launching satellites, weight means money. The heavier the spacecraft, the more fuel it needs to reach orbit. Because the new amplifier packs more power into a lighter design than previous microwave amplifiers, it's cheaper to fly, NASA stated.

For its primary mission, LRO will orbit above the moon at about 31 miles for one year. The spacecraft's instruments will help scientists compile high resolution, three-dimensional maps of the lunar surface and also survey it at many spectral wavelengths. A series of four engine burns through June 27 will finalize LRO's initial orbit. During this phase, each of its seven instruments is checked out and brought online.

The satellite will explore the moon's deepest craters, examining permanently sunlit and shadowed regions, and provide understanding of the effects of lunar radiation on humans. LRO will return more data about the moon than any previous mission.

Now how that data will ultimately be used is up in the air as Norm Augustine, chair of the United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee review, has said NASA lacks the financial  backing to continue pursuing manned space programs.  Augustine told PBS "the human space flight program really isn't executable with the money we have."

While its future is being debated, NASA today said it would offer $50 million in stimulus money to further develop private commercial spacecraft.

NASA has been hedging it bets with commercial space support.  The space agency recently announced its Commercial Crew and Cargo Program looks to develop and demonstrate safe, reliable, and cost-effective capabilities to transport cargo and eventually crew to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

The new program, known as "CCDev," represents a milestone in the development of an orbital commercial human spaceflight sector, NASA stated. By maturing "the design and development of commercial crew spaceflight concepts and associated enabling technologies and capabilities," the program will allow several companies to move a few steps forward towards the ultimate goal of full demonstration of commercial human spaceflight to orbit, NASA said.

CCDev will go hand-in-hand with NASA's existing $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) which is supporting the private development of commercial cargo transportation from companies such as SpaceX and Orbital.

The program further develops the strategy that NASA's low-earth orbit  work will soon be left to private hands. The agency could then focus on the moon and beyond, barring budget disasters.

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