Representatives from 20 spacefaring nations will be meeting soon to discuss the future of space communications.
Among the ambitious projects under discussion will be plans for a reliable internet connection for astronauts on the International Space Station and which would work on the Moon and Mars.
Also on the agenda will be technology that will allow astronauts to control planetary rovers from spacecraft in deep space.
The European Space Agency envisages a future in which rovers on Mars or inhabited bases on the Moon will be supported by a fleet of orbiting satellites that will provide data relay and navigation services.
Astronauts will travel to planets and asteroids hundreds of millions of kilometres from Earth and all of this will require a communications infrastructure that will allow astronauts to link with control centres and sophisticated systems on their vessels.
ESA’s Mars Express was an essential in-orbit communication’s hub for NASA’s 2008 Phoenix lander. Credit: ESA
Between April 16 and 19 space agency representatives from the likes of ESA (Europe), NASA (US), ASI (Italy), CNES (France), Roscosmos (Russia), DLR (Germany) and JAXA (Japan) will meet as part of the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSD), which has met periodically since 1982.
In a press release, ESA has spelled out its belief that developing standards for space hardware and data interchange for space agencies, commercial spaceflight companies and satellite manufacturers will pay off even in the short term – and the need is set to grow.
In the long term, it will be necessary for distant spacecraft to have the ability to communicate and transfer data between one-another. For this, they will have to be capable of establishing powerful radio links – even while orbiting planets, or travelling through space at thousands of kilometres per hour.
This has already been achieved on a small scale with the likes of ESA’s Mars Express, which, in 2008, served as a data relay node for NASA’s Phoenix lander. More recently, mission controllers at the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, recruited ESA’s worldwide tracking station network to keep in contact with Phobos-Grunt probe while it travelled to Mars, although unfortunately the mission was lost shortly after launch.
With some space agencies having their budgets squeezed, manned planetary exploration missions are being sidelined and replaced with plans for robotic missions that would be controlled from orbit by astronauts.
Such plans would require robust communication links to allow astronauts, robots and control centres to work efficiently together.
In October this year, from onboard the International Space Station, ESA astronaut André Kuipers will practice remotely controlling a test rover on Earth – to simulate in-orbit control of a robotic rover on the surface of a planet such as Mars.