An app used by pro-democracy protesters could provide a solution to deep-space communications.
WHAT: A NASA request for information about delivering Wi-Fi on deep-space missions
WHY: NASA has been using off-the-shelf Wi-Fi networks to communicate and deliver code to its Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental (SPHERE) satellites – self-propelled bowling-ball sized devices that operate inside the International Space Station. But the radio communications infrastructure that covers the station and visiting cargo carriers "cannot be practically extended to deep-space missions," according to a NASA RFI released in September. The space agency is interested in wireless mesh networking technology, a decentralized, localized, software-driven architecture that is powered by individual devices.
NASA notes that wireless mesh networking doesn't appear to have popular commercial applications. The big question is, will support for mesh networks ever be built into popular mobile computing platforms, like Android, Apple iOS, and Windows. The RFI asks, "What markets will drive demand for mesh-capable chipsets in the emerging generation of technologies?" For NASA there is also the added concern of being able to harden mesh-capable chipsets against radiation. Additionally, NASA wants to know whether the long term evolution mobile broadband standard, also known as 4G, could be a candidate. Some concerns there include the size of base units and their power consumption.
The ongoing protests in Hong Kong might have some lessons for NASA. Protestors are taking advantage of a free app called Firechat that creates ad hoc mesh networks that are powered by the Bluetooth connectivity of devices that are in physical proximity to each other. The app allows protestors to communicate outside the reach of Chinese censors because it doesn’t operate over the Internet and can function even during a deliberate mobile network outage. The power of the network grows with the addition of users, and the loss of a single node doesn't have an impact on network strength. What's interesting about Firechat is that the app-based approach isn't dependent on the standards used in current or future Wi-Fi chipsets – and whether those chips are open to firmware modification. Firechat is a chat application and perhaps not the idea tool for delivering messages among spacecraft, satellites and robots in deep space. But the idea of an app-based solution that doesn't require an existing commercial market for mesh-capable chips is an intriguing potential answer to the questions posed in NASA's RFI.
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