10 Best Ideas for Interplanetary Communication

Switching from Radio Signals to Lasers
Using radio waves limits the speed of data transmission. Grove Pashley/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

As we mentioned in the introduction, data transmissions in space currently are stuck at rates that are vastly slower than the broadband Internet that we're accustomed to having on Earth. The reason -- without getting into all the fancy math -- is that because of the relative frequencies in which radio waves operate, they're limited in how much data they can handle. (You may have noticed this effect if you have a wireless Internet router in your home or office -- it just isn't as fast or dependable as a wired connection.)

In contrast, the concentrated energy of a laser light, which has a shorter frequency, can handle a lot more data. Additionally, because lasers don't spread out as much as radio transmissions, they require less power to transmit data [source: Ruag.com]. That's why NASA is working on the Deep Space Optical Communications Project, which would switch to utilizing lasers instead of radio transmitters and receiver. That would up the amount of data being transmitted by 10 to 100 times what state-of-the-art radio rigs can do, which would make interplanetary Internet roughly as fast as a typical broadband connection on Earth [source: NASA]. But getting laser communication to work in space is no cakewalk. NASA has performed small-scale, low-data-rate demonstrations of laser data transmission in space, and it's working to develop a system for laser communication which eventually will be tested on a satellite in lunar orbit [source: NASA]. Eventually, laser data transmission might make it possible to send high-definition, live video from Mars [source: Klotz].