NASA plans to return humans to the moon and then to Mars. One of the mission’s biggest challenges will not only be transporting astronauts and building a safe base, but also interplanetary communication.
- Mars, moving in its orbit, is approaching and moving away from Earth. The average distance between the planets is 225 million km, and the maximum distance is more than 400 million km
- Communication with the astronauts on Mars requires patience
- A simple animation of a scientist illustrates why we cannot speak to them on Mars, for example via video chat
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NASA and the agency’s commercial partners are working on the systems and technology needed to bring astronauts back to the moon, build a base there, and then send people to Mars.
Interplanetary communication is not so simple
One of the biggest challenges facing a manned mission is the distance between Earth and the red planet. Even when we’re talking about 60 million kilometers (in 2018 Mars approached Earth at a distance of 57.6 million kilometers), Traveling that far is not only a challenge, but also interplanetary connections.
The speed of light is the fastest speed any object can travel in space. In a complete vacuum, a photon (a particle of light) can travel at a speed of 299,792 kilometers per second. It’s incredibly fast, but the speed of light would seem frustratingly slow if we tried to communicate with other planets – even neighboring ones.
James O’Donogo, a scientist with the Japan Space Agency, created a simple animation of Demonstrate the communication delay that future controllers who will oversee the mission to Mars will experience.
O’Donoghue wrote on Twitter, sharing the animation: “Wireless communication at light speed between Earth and the Moon is not so bad, but using it to video chat with Mars astronauts would be difficult even when Mars is closer to Earth.” Below.
It takes three minutes and two seconds to send a signal from Earth to Mars at the speed of light.
How does NASA communicate with robots on Mars
Radio waves penetrate space at the speed of light, as seen in the Odonogo animation. Show how NASA is currently communicating with its rovers on Mars. But this pattern of communication could change once the agency is ready to send astronauts to the red planet.
Now the communication system works like this Mars probes and rovers send radio signals to satellites orbiting Mars, which transmit radio waves to Earth. These signals are received by a global antenna network called the Deep Space Network (DSN).
An antenna at the Goldstone Deep Space Communications complex, located in the Mojave Desert, California
When NASA wants to send a command to a robot on Mars, the signal goes the same way: The DSN antenna sends it to satellites orbiting Mars, which then sends it towards the planet. This is how NASA will communicate with the persistent rover, which was launched into space in July on its way to Mars.
NASA has been communicating in space using radio waves – and nothing else – since it began sending humans into orbit in the 1950s. However, the agency plans to switch to space laser communications in the future.
Although the laser also travels at the speed of light, It can transfer data at speeds 10 to 100 times faster than radio wavesWhile using much less hardware. NASA estimates it will take nine weeks to send a map of Mars to Earth with a laser. With the current wireless connection, this process will take nine years.
Illustration of a spacecraft using laser communication to transmit data from Mars to Earth
NASA tested this technology for the first time. When she photographed the Mona Lisa with a laser to a satellite orbiting the moon in 2013. In 2021, it will launch a new satellite, thanks to which it will test this method of communication in Earth orbit.