NASA experiments with X-ray networking

x-rayNASA is researching new technology to transmit data at high rates over vast distances in outer space, as well as enable communications with hypersonic vehicles during re-entry.

At the moment such radio communications are impossible, but NASA boffins think that using X-rays could be just the ticket.

The science is based on the concept that other forms of light can carry data as well. Fibre-optics uses visible and near-infrared light. So NASA started to think about X-rays.

Keith Gendreau, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, thought of developing X-ray emitters that these spacecraft could use as navigational beacons to make sure they stayed in position relative to one another. The system would keep them aligned down to a precision of just 1 micron.

Gendreau then reasoned that by modulating or varying the strength or frequency of these X-ray transmissions on and off many times per second, these navigational beacons could also serve as a communication system. Such X-ray communication (XCOM), might, in theory, permit gigabit-per-second data rates throughout the solar system, he said

X-rays have shorter wavelengths than the visible or infrared light typically used in laser communication. This means that, XCOM can transmit more data for the same amount of power that laser communication requires, Gendreau said.

X-rays have shorter wavelengths, they can be transmitted in tighter beams than visible or infrared light, so less energy is wasted in trying to communicate over vast distances, he added.

A new toy called the Modulated X-ray Source, or MXS, which generates rapid-fire X-ray pulses. MXS is slated to get installed on an experimental pallet that will be deployed outside the International Space Station in 2018.

MXS will transmit data via X-rays about 165 feet to the Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), which is designed to study neutron stars and their rapidly spinning relatives, pulsars, and will launch to the International Space Station in early 2017