No More Dial-Up to the Outer Planets

It may be surprising to many people, but when NASA scientists receive data back from distant probes, their experience is akin to downloading "Bohemian Rhapsody" (or, pick your own epic-length song) on 56K. Which is to say, there’s a lot of waiting involved. But that could change:

 Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology have developed a tiny light detector that could one day boost interplanetary communications to broadband speeds.

Images from Mars, like this computerized one of a canyon, are transmitted at a data rate of 128,000 bits per second.

The work could permit the transmission of color video between astronauts and satellites and scientists on Earth across interplanetary distances, something that is not practical with current technologies.

The new light detector improves detection efficiency to 57% at a wavelength of 1,550 nanometers — the same wavelength used by optical fibers on Earth to carry broadband signals to homes and offices. Currently, light detectors only absorb about 20% of the light they receive.

"It can take hours with the existing wireless radio frequency technology to get useful scientific information back from Mars to Earth," said study team member Karl Berggren from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "But an optical link can do that thousands of times faster."

The work is detailed in the Jan. 23 issue of the journal Optics Express