NASA finds Wi-Fi success in Meteor Crater

National Aeronautic and Space Agency

NASA researchers conducted a successful test of Wi-Fi technology in a remote area intended to simulate terrain on another planet.

During a September field test at Meteor Crater, Ariz., NASA used Wi-Fi cells from Tropos Networks to measure a reliable 1 megabit/sec of solid data throughput at a range of 1.3 miles.

A three-node network of Tropos 5110 Wi-Fi cells was set up over a two-square mile hot zone at Meteor Crater. Engineers used a laptop computer inside a moving vehicle, with no external antenna, and successfully transmitted data from a remote location through two nodes back to the base camp computer.

Though NASA has no current plans to send Wi-Fi technology into space, researchers are examining Wi-Fi as a possible future communications support to interplanetary expeditions, including flights to Mars.

"What we'd like to be able to do is to distribute a communications infrastructure on a planet that would be unique to the operations of the day," said Marc Seibert, Senior Research Engineer at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

NASA has been testing Wi-Fi technology during the past five years, but this trial with Tropos nodes has been the most successful to date, Seibert said.

According the Seibert, reasons include Tropos' certification to operate at a higher power level than other Wi-Fi cells.

"There are pros and cons with everything, but Wi-Fi does provide fairly good throughput," Seibert said.

Wi-Fi technology currently rates in the 1-to-3 range on NASA's 10-point technology readiness scale. Seibert stated that Wi-Fi technology must advance to the 8-to-9 point readiness range before it might be flown on future space missions.

The engineers measured the goodput -- reliable data throughput -- of the Wi-Fi cells with Iperf performance monitoring tools, which determine the average goodput during a specific period of time. It's a better determination than simply measuring Wi-Fi signal strength because that signal could vary in space, Seibert said.

Bert Williams, vice president of marketing for Tropos, also envisions more practical uses of Wi-Fi technology than futuristic space exploration.

Williams sees public safety and law enforcement as areas in need of added Wi-Fi technology. Tropos currently provides Wi-Fi technology for laptop computers carried by officers of the San Mateo, Calif., police department.

NASA researchers have been testing technology in remote locations since the 1960s, according to Seibert. Meteor Crater was also the training site of the Apollo astronauts.

"This simulates terrain on another planet, and mimics others as close as we can on Earth without going into high-arctic regions," Seibert said.

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