Deep Space Network Ditches Dialup

So, are they really using dialup to talk to the Mars rovers?
Not literally a dialup modem, no, but let's face it, the current Deep Space Network is painfully slow - even slower than those old 14.4k dialup modems we used to use in the early 90's. Hands up who misses the days of quick touch tone dialing and high-pitched fax connecting sounds? Yeah me too, but only from an aesthetic perspective - the convenience of an always on blazing fast cable connection is worth losing the nostalgia. That stark comparison does serve to illustrate the point that we are currently using something akin to those old modems to talk to all of our probes, landers and spacecraft that are at work all around the solar system. The latest incredible image from the HiRISE camera in orbit around Mars has to be transmitted at painfully slow speeds - the scientists liken it to trying to watch an HD clip on YouTube using a dialup connection. The buffering of the first minute alone would take hours.

A stunning image of Mars from HiRISE

The good news is that NASA is giving the whole system an overhaul in preparation for the upcoming Moon,  Mars and Beyond missions. Coming out of savings in the annual $400 million Deep Space Network budget, the upgrade will boost current performance by over 50 times. What this means is that when we do eventually set foot on the Moon and Mars, we won't be limited to those grainy old analogue TV pictures that were so washed out Neil Armstrong almost blended into the scenery, we'll be able to watch proper HD video of the events in real time.

Of course there is a far more wide ranging use than human exploration, the current cadre of probes and landers will have a much shorter wait for an available slot in communications time before sending their data back to Earth. The future will no doubt bring even greater improvements, like laser based communication that is less susceptible to disruption from space weather and solar activity, but for now this upgrade will serve as a good next step in our drive into the cosmos.

Personally, I think it is very sad that this kind of upgrade has to come from a budget savings drive, rather than a direct funding injection, but such is the state of space exploration today - we are at the whim of more important issues on the ground. My view is that we need to be exploring space yesterday! It's all very well to think that our little Earth is a nice cozy safe and warm place to live, but it's a big bad universe out there and it is looking for the next great way to make life difficult for us. Stop wasting time fighting amongst ourselves over the piffling resources of our home planet and start looking where it is in abundance - out there!

Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
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