NASA details bleeding edge communications ideas

NASA releases 2015 Technology Roadmaps for future missions, technology

NASA
Credit: NASA

Some of the “revolutionary concepts” NASA detailed this week in its 2015 Technology Roadmaps sound like they are straight out of James Bond’s Q Branch – the research division that creates all of the super-agent’s really cool technology.

Amongst the myriad concepts outlined in the Roadmaps – which lay out the new technologies and directions NASA hopes will steer its aeronautics, science and human exploration missions for the next 20 years -- were six high-risk high-reward technologies the space agency says are so “far out” that exactly how they would be developed is a not clear yet, NASA said.

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These far-out revolutionary concept technologies include:

  • X-Ray Navigation: Uses X-ray emitting pulsars to provide the ability to autonomously determine position anywhere in the solar system, just as the Global Positioning System (GPS) does for users on Earth. Such technology would support autonomous navigation and position throughout the solar system and beyond. Pulsed X-ray signals from millisecond pulsars (MSPs) enable a global positioning system (GPS)-like absolute position determination to support autonomous navigation throughout the solar system and beyond, NASA said.
  • X-Ray Communications: Exploits extremely low beam divergence of X-rays to provide high-rate, deep-space, low-transmit-power, highly secure data links, and enable new penetrating communications capabilities. NASA said such technology would assure communications through harsh environments and enable secure space-to-space links on the order of 10 Gb/s per watt of transmitter power.
  • Neutrino-Based Navigation and Tracking: Neutrino sources as navigation beacons enable navigation and tracking directly through normal matter. Accordingly, they could be used for long-distance signaling when line-of-sight cannot be guaranteed. NASA said such technology would provide the ability to determine position and attitude of spacecraft anywhere in the universe, including submerged systems.
  • Quantum Key Distribution (QKD): Promises absolute secure transmission of the key codes that are essential to encrypt messages with tamper proof information assurance.
  • Quantum Communications: The art of transferring quantum states (which encode information) between two points, potentially leading to much more efficient communications. NASA said such systems would utilize entangled photons in quantum techniques such as superdense coding, teleportation, and quantum illumination to increase interplanetary communications data rates.
  • Superconducting Quantum Interference Filter Microwave Amplifier: Represents a significant shift by using magnetic field detection instead of electric field detection and capitalizes on techniques demonstrated in the sensors community. It incorporates a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) array for detecting extremely weak magnetic fields to enable a new type of signal detection process.

The revolutionary topics were a small part of the “Communications, Navigation, and Orbital Debris Tracking and Characterization Systems” roadmap. That roadmap includes a number of goals NASA hopes to achieve in the networking and communications realm.

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Among those goals are a number of challenges including:

  1. Increase data rates (e.g., 10 to 100 times) without increasing the mission burden in mass, volume, power, and/or spectrum;
  2. Increased security without increased complexity; and
  3. Assured data delivery via robust, low latency, automated or autonomous, and networked connectivity throughout the solar system.

For navigation and timing, the goals are to provide:

  1. More accurate vehicle tracking to reduce the errors in trajectories; entry descent, and landing; and rendezvous and docking;
  2. The ability to track more vehicles in less time with equivalent accuracy;
  3. Automated or autonomous trajectory and maneuver planning; and
  4. More accurate and stable time or frequency references for timekeeping to facilitate more precise navigation and autonomous operations.

Orbital debris tracking and characterization will require the ability to:

  1. Track and characterize debris that is 10 to 100 times smaller than debris that is currently being tracked;
  2. Reduce tracking time to accommodate the larger number of targets being tracked.

“There is still enormous potential to further develop radio frequency technology, which will help provide the higher data rates that will be needed in the future to avoid constraining new mission capabilities. There is also an enormous potential to develop optical communications to a level of availability that matches that of radio frequency communications and unbridles the unrestricted optical bandwidth for orders of magnitude advances over present radio frequency capabilities. Position, navigation, and timing technology advancement will allow spacecraft to navigate autonomously anywhere in the solar system,” NASA stated.

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