10 Best Ideas for Interplanetary Communication

Patching Probes and Rovers into an Interplanetary Communications Network
A composite image shows the NASA's Curiosity Mars rover with its robotic arm extended for the first time on Mars, Aug. 20, 2012. Could there be a time when every space object communicates with each other rather than just with Earth-based stations? NASA/JPL-Caltech/Getty Images

Previously, we mentioned the idea of building a huge network of dedicated communications satellites that stretched across the solar system, which would be a huge undertaking. But there might be a smaller, less costly and more incremental way of putting together such a network. Up to this time, whenever we've sent spacecraft and satellites into space, they've usually communicated directly with Earth-based stations and utilized software and equipment that have been specially designed for that particular mission (and often discarded afterward).

But what if scientists and engineers equipped every craft or object that was launched into space -- from space stations, orbital telescopes, probes in orbit around Mars or other planets, and even robotic rovers that explored alien landscapes -- so that they all could communicate with one another and serve as nodes of a sprawling interplanetary network? If you're looking for a metaphor on Earth, imagine how your laptop computer, tablet, smartphone, game console, webcam and home entertainment center could all link into your wireless Internet router and share content with one another.

In addition to relaying information, ideally, such an interplanetary network might tie into the Internet on Earth, so that scientists could connect with orbital satellites or rovers and check out what they are seeing, in the same fashion that might go to NASA's Web site now.

"The network that NASA will soon build could very well be the one over which scientists work out startling details of Martian geology, oceanic conditions under the ice of Jupiter's frigid moon Europa, or the turbulent cloud cover of Venus," a 2005 article in the engineering publication IEEE Spectrum explained. "It may well be the way a homesick space explorer sends e-mail back home" [source: Jackson].