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The Moon's Short-Lived Internet Was Faster Than 11 States' Broadband Connections

The Moon is hooked up with laser communications, which could help us talk to spacecraft in deep space instantly.
May 28, 2014, 10:05pm
An artist's rendering of LADEE in lunar orbit. Image: NASA

For 30 days last fall, the Moon was hooked up with laser broadband that can receive information from Earth at nearly 20 megabits per second. That's faster internet than is available to the average American in at least 11 states.

The test was a demonstration aboard NASA's LADEE spacecraft, which was a kamikaze mission that crashed into the lunar surface late last month. So, right this second, the Moon doesn't have a broadband service provider, per se, but the demonstration was successful and will likely be used on many different spacecraft and orbiters in the future.

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Laser broadband is fast enough to stream high definition video on the Moon and can generally surf the web in space at speeds that are faster than the average broadband internet speeds in Maine, Kentucky, Montana, Ohio, Alaska, Wyoming, Arkansas, North Carolina, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Hawaii, according to Ookla's Net Index. In fact, if you use data from the first half of last year, it's faster than the average American internet connection overall. (Of course, lag time would be an issue, but you can't have everything when you're living on the Moon.)

If you were following the launch of LADEE, you'll remember that NASA was able to transmit data from LADEE back to Earth at a rate of 622 megabits per second, which is faster than basically any internet we've got right now. But after that first demonstration, NASA and MIT's Lincoln Laboratory wanted to see how fast they could send information from Earth to the Moon.

That's a different (but related) beast—one lets you send pictures (or internet) from space to Earth, the other lets you send YouTube videos (or, say, spacecraft commands) from Earth to space. They were able to do it at speeds of 19.44 megabits per second.

Here's how space internet, called Lunar Laser Communication, works. At a ground station in White Sands, New Mexico (a state which, for the record, has broadband internet speeds that are almost exactly on par with Moon's), four small telescopes are rigged up with a laser transmitter that can shoot coded pulses of information to LADEE.

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They each operate slightly differently, but send the same information. The goal is to basically amplify the signal so much that it can make it the 238,600 miles from the Earth to the Moon without being completely disrupted by the atmosphere and any other sorts of disturbances in between.

In fact, the system works well enough that the lasers can be shot through thin clouds without severely hampering performance.

The ground station in New Mexico. Image: Robert LaFon/NASA

Of course, there's no one up there to use the internet, not yet anyway. But laser communications are an important part of NASA's plan to improve Earth-to-space communications in general. Remember those "seven minutes of terror" that happened during the Curiosity rover landing? That's because it takes a full seven minutes for the rover on Mars to communicate back with Earth.

Not only does it take a while to send anything, the speeds are atrocious: Right now, Curiosity can send data directly back to Earth at speeds that vary between 500 bits per second and 32,000 bits per second. NASA gets around those slow speeds by having Curiosity communicate with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which can send data back to Earth a little faster, using X-band radio waves.

In any case, that's not going to be good enough going forward, which is why NASA ran this Moon laser communications test. The full, technical results of the test will be announced early next month at the CLEO Conference in San Jose, Calif.

"With optical communications, we can get data back to Earth in real time, which is very important for scientists who are interested in studying the outer planets," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told NASA last month. "We are flying a laser communications experiment that can send [and receive] imagery, voice, and data at internet speeds. If we did it over S band, it would take days to do that."