NASA to Test X-Ray Communications for Deep Space Missions
Mar 6, 2019 · 2 min read

With the number of both commercial and government satellites launched to space growing exponentially, and the upcoming missions to the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies, radio communications will soon be overloaded by the sheer volume of data transmitted from space

Space agencies are looking for new ways to transmit information, including optical communications that rely on lasers, as well as X-ray communications, which NASAwill soon test in space via their XCOM demonstrator.

For the last sixty years, NASA has relied on radio communications handled by its Deep Space Network (DSN), a global network of radio antennas that have supported the agency’s missions. However, with upcoming missions to the moon and Mars, NASA will need a more efficient communication system. Enter the concept for X-ray communications (XCOM). Theoretically, X-rays can send more information and use less power because they have shorter wavelengths than both radio waves and lasers and can also broadcast in tighter beams. X-rays can also penetrate hot plasma that is present when spacecraft re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Historically, plasma sheaths have caused communications blackouts, with mission control left in the dark about whether the crew has landed safely.

To testXCOM, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center techs have created the Modulated X-ray Source (MXS). It will be tested onboard the International Space Station (ISS) in the coming years. The MXS will be controlled via NavCube, a navigation technology on the ISS. It will send encoded data via x-ray pulses from one end of the station to the other. Pulses will be received by the Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer(NICER).

“We’ve waited a long time to demonstrate this capability,” said Jason Mitchell, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. “For some missions, XCOM may be an enabling technology due to the extreme distances where they must operate… Our goal for the immediate future is finding interested partners to help further develop this technology.”

NICER was built for gathering data on neutron stars and pulsars, but in 2017, it demonstrated the effectiveness of X-ray navigation in space, pointing scientists to potential developments in this area.

If the MXS experiment is successful, it could enable better data transmission for missions well beyond the low Earth orbit.

Picture credit: Universe Today

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