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Beam Home Faster

MIT Lincoln Laboratory has teamed up with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory to produce a laser that will transmit data from Mars to Earth at a rate about 10 times faster than that of current transmissions. The technology, which will be used on a 2009 mission, will reach rates as high as 30 megabits per second.

“This is the future,” says Bill Keicher, a researcher at Lincoln Lab. Radio frequency has been the traditional choice for data transmission across the millions of kilometers between Earth and Mars. However, a near-infrared laser, with its shorter wavelengths, can transfer more information per second and will open “communication capacities where radio frequency wasn’t practical,” says Keicher. In particular, he says, “video may be a possibility.” Lasers weren’t considered until now because they weren’t reliable or efficient enough, and because clouds could partially block laser signals. The researchers could avoid this problem by using multiple ground receivers in different locations.

Lincoln Lab will produce the onboard transmitter and a receiver station for the mission. Challenges to overcome before the 2009 test include building space-worthy equipment and determining how weather on Earth affects transmissions.

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