NASA launch could be the first step towards an interplanetary Internet

September 4, 2013
Artist's rendering of the LADEE satellite in orbit with INTERNET SPACE LASERS (NASA)
Artist's rendering of the LADEE satellite in orbit with INTERNET SPACE LASERS (NASA)

NASA is launching its latest lunar mission, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), from Wallops Island, Va. on Friday at 11:27pm EDT -- and The Switch will be there to cover it. This morning we spoke to S. Pete Worden, the Director of NASA's Ames Research Center where the LADEE space craft was designed and built. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Andrea Peterson: Can you give me a brief overview of the LADEE mission and its goals?

S. Pete Worden: It started about six years ago. I became the director of NASA Ames and Ames traditionally wasn't a spacecraft center, but we’d done a few small low cost missions in the past. As we began to revitalize our space exploration effort -- the Moon, Mars, asteroids -- we looked at how we could do some of the robotic missions, the precursor missions, cheaper. We came up with what we call a modular bus. It’s kind of a mix and match thing much like your desktop computer is. It looked like a much lower cost effort.

After a couple of years of looking at it, NASA headquarters decided this was an ideal mission to study some pretty critical problems about the Moon. We learned a lot about the Moon when we went there with Apollo, but it actually opened more questions. One of the key things has been what is the environment on the Moon. It has a very, very tenuous atmosphere which is actually called an exosphere. There was some evidence from Apollo there might even be things like dust storms caused by interactions with solar wind.

Of course, this would have a big impact on some of our human activities or large scale robotic activities there. So we really wanted to figure out what was going on. And there’s another critical reason to do this: This atmosphere is so thin that if you have large scale human activities like lots of landings or even things like Apollo it disrupts it. So we really want to understand the pristine state of the Moon before humans disrupt it. There’s some urgency about that. In fact, at the end of the year the Chinese are supposed to land on the Moon. That alone will probably disrupt the exosphere considerably. So we really want the pristine state.

So that's the primary objective?

This mission has a couple of objectives. First was to demonstrate a low cost approach. Second was to study the pristine state of the Moon and it’s exosphere and determine if there are things like dust storms.

A third objective was added later; one of our big problems with any space mission is communications. Today we use radio with these giant radio dishes in the deep space network, some of which are hundreds of feet across, and that’s expensive and limited.

Lasers, because they’re a much tighter beam than a radio beam, offer an exciting new way to get a lot more data down. That technology has advanced considerably so we added a laser communications test. It’ll be our first test of if we can communicated with high data rates from deep space.

Those are really the three objectives of the LADEE mission.

Would it be accurate to describe that last test as laser broadband internet from space?

Absolutely. I think that laser broadband internet from space is a very good description of it. As times go on we expect that we may eventually be able to get something you might call an interplanetary internet and this will be the first step in demonstrating we can do that. This will give us close to a gigabit per second from the Moon which is pretty impressive – that’s more connectivity than most companies.

The idea is that we will eventually have an interplanetary internet. The same technology looks like we can eventually use it from mars. Of course, you wouldn't get that same data rate from mars, at least initially. But very much so, a solar system wide broadband is our ultimate objective.

Going back to the modular nature of the LADEE mission, are there are other ways NASA is thinking about using that approach on future missions?

Yes, we've got a number of missions on the drawing board, although we haven’t really decided on the specifics. But as we look at especially reduced budgets, we’re looking at ways to do lower cost missions, we’re looking at standardizing interfaces and we’re looking at approaches like a modular bus – which is much like your desktop.

If you want to add more memory, you just add another slot. We’re trying to do the same thing with a spacecraft so if you look at the spacecraft it looks like a sort of stack of modules. There’s one module that’s a propulsion module, there’s another module that’s a communications module, there’s another module that has the scientific instruments on it, and another one that has what you call spacecraft house keeping or a bus. Those altogether can be mixed or matched.

In fact, we designed [the modular bus] initially so that it could be actually landed, so instead of having the propulsion module we just take a different one that’s a landing module. In the future when we land on the Moon, or land or land on Mars, or rendezvous with asteroids we would just change the module rather than the whole spacecraft. It’s sort of an exciting new approach and this will really validate that it can work and that it can save us money.

Speaking of saving money and NASA’s reduced resources in recent years. I know before joining the agency you were a little critical of it – I believe the quote I have saying “NASA stands for Never A Straight Answer.” Has working at the agency changed your perspective on the value of the organization?

I've always loved NASA and their mission. One always has to be careful when one says something because you might end up working for the folks you've been criticizing. Frankly, Mike Griffin, the previous administrator, when I spoke to him said, “Look, stop criticizing and come and help us fix it.”

I think it was probably an overstatement when I made it, but it’s been really gratifying to work at NASA and see the professionalism of the people. I've sort of become a NASA zealot now. Yes, we still have challenges and problems. But I feel really good working with other centers. I think we’re rising to the challenge of reduced funds and doing more. It’s really been fun being part of that.

I know one of the more recent proposals as opposed to manned Moon missions have been things having to do with Near Earth Objectives – like an asteroid lasso for instance. Do you have any opinion on those types of projects?

Absolutely. I think NASA has a great program now. Ultimately our objective is to send humans to Mars -- I think eventually sometime later in the century people will actually live on Mars. And just like Apollo there are a number of steps. A near-term step that seems to make a lot of sense is to fly people to what we call cislunar space – the space between the earth and the Moon – but at the same time to demonstrate that they can interact with natural objects like an asteroid.

The first step that we’re looking at now is bringing a small asteroid or a piece of an asteroid to cislunar space and then having astronauts go and practice and develop skills and how we interact with these natural objects. As a follow-up to that – and again, right now, we’re just in the formulation stages – we may actually go to some of the asteroids between earth and mars. And hopefully in the 2030s we would go to the moons of Mars which are like large asteroids. Of course, that would be the final step before landing on the surface of Mars.

So it’s really a step like program, and I think this is a very exciting first step. That doesn’t mean that ultimately we wouldn’t go back to the Moon. I think that’s certainly a possibility with the equipment we are building. The SLS (space launch system) and the Orion capsule – that will enable us to really do all of those things. But really the most appropriate next step is bring a piece of asteroid back or small asteroid and have humans using the equipment we’re building as one of their early missions go visit that. It’s kind of a cool mission.

Do you have any other thoughts about the mission on Friday we haven’t covered?

Well no, other than this is really one of the first reasonably large satellites that NASA Ames has built in house. We actually constructed the satellite at our center in Calif. So, this is kind of one of those heart in the throat moments when your baby launches. It’s going to be an exciting day and we’re really looking forward to it. We’re checking and re-checking things. I’m on my way out right now to the final readiness review that happens at noon today just across the Bay Bridge. It’s one of those really cool moments that makes it really worthwhile working in the space program.

The space viking photo that caused NASA Ames a bit of trouble. (Ved Chirayath)
The space viking photo that caused NASA Ames a bit of trouble. (Ved Chirayath)

I do have one last softball question. I understand that you’re sort of a character. You do some costumes for costumes for Yuri’s night and there was the Vikings of Bjornstad photo shoot. Do you have any idea what your next costume adventure is going to be?

Unfortunately, that may be a distraction in some cases to folks. (Editor's note: Senator Chuck Grassley launched an investigation to see if government resources were spent on the Vikings of Bjornstad photo shoot. There was not -- but the photographer estimates the investigation cost between $40,000-$600,000 in tax payer money.) So for right now I’m probably going to hang my costumes up, but I think it’s important to have some fun every now and then. When we have opportunities like Yuri’s night and other things it’s sort of a neat chance to celebrate space and do fun things. But, like I said, for right now I think I’m going to focus on spacecraft.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Brian Fung | September 4, 2013