The stellar history of Wi-Fi connectivity in space dates back over a decade to 2008. In that year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) installed the initial access points (APs) on the International Space Station (ISS).
Since then, NASA has collaborated with various international entities. The prime objective is to expand the space station’s wireless connectivity from a couple of APs inside the ISS to an entire Wi-Fi network that extends into matter-free vacuum space.
Wi-Fi networks on Earth and in space should maintain optimum wireless performance and efficiency. Such features can provide critical benefits to users, including availability, flexibility, and security.
The future of such wireless local area networks (LANs) in space includes applications that range from spacesuit helmets to deep space.
LCRD: NASA’s High-Speed Internet for Space
NASA is currently developing a Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). The so-called “space Wi-Fi” can help the United States space agency understand the best use of laser communications systems.
This system could provide a high-speed “Internet” that allows significantly higher data rates for wireless connections. Some possibilities include astronaut communications and scientific data downlinks between spacecraft and planet Earth.
The space agency could feasibly integrate Wi-Fi technology into the space internet.
NASA could also utilize LCRD for deep space exploration and near-Earth missions. The revolutionary technology could convert space communications from Star Wars-like science fiction into digital age reality.
Such laser communications or “optical communications” transform data into a beam of light. The light beams are transmitted between various spacecraft and later to Earth terminals.
LCRD technology could provide data rates up to 100 times higher than existing radio frequency (RF) communications systems.
Such laser communications systems can be significantly smaller than radio systems. This feature could be invaluable for long missions to the Moon and Mars, for example.
LCRD is designed to function for several years and will allow NASA to optimize the new technology’s usage.
NASA is also developing a laser terminal for the ISS to utilize LCRD and transmit data from the space station to the ground. The process will be at a data rate of one gigabyte per second.
NASA plans to test the new terminal during future NASA missions by using LCRD to transmit data to the ground.
LCRD can indeed provide significant benefits for space communications and applications, including Wi-Fi technology.
Nevertheless, some of the main drawbacks include the high costs and long-term development required to design and build the space communications technology.
Since the 1970s, NASA’s budget has averaged up to about 1% of all federal. spending. Factors such as NASA budget cuts and technical delays could affect how soon Wi-Fi could leverage LCRD technology.
Wi-Fi Hotspots–on the Moon?
Nokia Bell Labs has developed a fourth-generation broadband wireless network or long-term evolution (4G/LTE) network for the Moon.
This technology could be a precursor to Wi-Fi connectivity set up elsewhere, such as during a mission to Mars.
Nokia is among the other companies, including Lockheed-Martin and SpaceX, that have won five-year NASA contracts worth more than $370 million.
The objective is to demonstrate critical infrastructure technologies on the Moon’s surface.
These contracts are all part of NASA’s Artemis program that aims to complete another mission to the Moon. However, NASA hopes that such missions will lead to more exploration of the solar system, starting with Mars.
Communication would be one of the most critical components of a lunar outpost. Other important components for settlements on the surface of the Moon include shelter and power.
Unlike 4G networks on Earth, the Moon network won’t just carry data and voice signals. It will also facilitate remote operations like the remote control of lunar rovers.
Meanwhile, the base stations and antennas must be made sturdier for the harsh lunar environment. In addition, the Moon’s 28-day day-night cycle includes extreme temperatures.
Another essential requirement is for a rocket and astronauts to transport the Wi-Fi system to the Moon.
The network hardware must additionally be sturdy enough to handle environmental stresses during launching and landing. These events could trigger vibrations, acceleration, and shock.
These hardware must also handle the harsh conditions of the lunar environment after landing.
Interestingly, the 4G network will likely function better on the Moon than on Earth. This reality is due to the lack of an atmosphere and land structures like buildings or trees. These factors would probably allow for better Wi-Fi signals.
Nokia will collaborate with Intuitive Machines, which is building a rover projected to land on the Moon during late 2022. The rover could transport Nokia’s 4G equipment over the lunar surface.
One possible drawback of the 4G network would be the interference of radio telescopes. That’s because they’re often extremely sensitive to radio frequency interference (RFI).
For example, a phone signal originating from Mars could interfere with a radio observatory on Earth. Thus, a lunar 4G network could produce even greater interference.
It would depend on the frequencies the network will use. For example, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides frequencies for different applications.
Precise signal-emission and shielding can help reduce RFI where it’s sourced. Astronomers frequently develop new strategies to reduce RFI from their data.
However, this process greatly relies on the cooperation of government regulations and private companies. That’s because these corporations wish to protect Earth-based radio telescopes from human-made interference from space.
NASA Spacesuits With Wi-Fi-Friendly Helmet Cameras
In February 2021, NASA astronauts conducted repairs to the ISS to facilitate the installation of innovative solar panels. The spacesuit helmets were equipped with cameras and Wi-Fi antennas to stream live videos on laptops inside the ISS cabin.
Meanwhile, the ground support team also used the video to walk the workers through the meticulous procedure. NASA refers to the cameras as High Definition Extra-Vehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) Camera Assembly (HECA).
Numerous APs provide wireless connectivity outside the space station. However, the astronauts needed to conduct repairs at a distant region of the ISS.
Various components, including solar panels, blocked the view. Meanwhile, the astronauts’ location was around 50 meters from the closest Wi-Fi structure. The nearest APs were antennas outside the ISS connected to an AP within the space station.
The helmet camera provided high-definition (HD) video during most of the astronauts’ work. This result was possible even with potential roadblocks like cables, structures, and long distances.
During the repairs, one of the astronauts noticed small damage to his glove coating. The astronaut used a HECA to inspect the glove. The Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) then advised the astronaut to minimize his use of the glove.
These Wi-Fi cameras had been at the space station since November 2019. The crew first used them when making upgrades to their NASA spacesuits.
In February 2021, a few months after SpaceX Crew Dragon docked with the ISS, the astronauts assembled, tested, and attached the Wi-Fi camera to a red-striped spacesuit.
The HECA uses Wi-Fi to stream live HD video for the crew and ground support to view. Recorded video is also saved through internal storage.
HD video can help with photo documentation that recently was conducted using a GoPro or Nikon camera. A Mission Control Center (MCC) operator can command the new camera to transmit video at different streaming rates.
MCC can also utilize the camera for taking still photos. Meanwhile, the crew working inside the ISS can view the streaming video on a laptop. This feature allows them to provide real-time support during spacewalks.
The camera supports “Wi-Fi 5.” Meanwhile, the HECA’s Wi-Fi client adapter is the first-ever to include this particular feature. One day it could allow ground control teams to locate the NASA spacesuit during crucial operations.
The main drawback of the Wi-Fi-equipped spacesuit helmets is the astronomical cost of each unit.
Over two decades after the Wi-Fi Alliance’s founding in 1999, Wi-Fi has become one of the world’s most popular wireless network protocols. Innovations of wireless technology offer numerous opportunities and challenges.
Future Wi-Fi innovations for space could include a Wi-Fi hotspot on Mars, spacesuits with Wi-Fi-compatible nano cameras, and intergalactic communication through NASA’s deep space network.