Forget satellites: New space antenna could let Mars rover connect straight to Earth

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Sep 18, 2015, 7:50 PM EDT (Updated)

We’ve figured out a lot of the kinks involved with landing a rover (or spaceship, for that matter) on nearby alien worlds, but communication remains a major issue. But a nifty new research project could make planet-to-planet communication a whole lot easier.

Rovers, like the ones rolling around on Mars right now, communicate via satellites in orbit around that planet — which means any commands and data are delayed by having to relay through an extra stop. That issue could be a problem of the past if a new University of California at Los Angeles project pans out. A research team has created a new type of antenna design that could “dramatically increase the available communication time” between a rover on Mars and a team on Earth.

Put simply, it works like this: The uber-antenna combines several small antennas (antenna elements) into a larger single antenna. The elements are configured using a unique geometry. According to the team, this new instrument can transmit and receive signals with greater power than current rover antennas. Yahya Rahmat-Samii, one of the designers of the new antenna system, told Space the project could fill a “potential need” for NASA in future Mars missions.

The satellite is described as a circularly polarized, half E-shaped patch antenna element. That design reduces the effects of atmospheric gas and particles, which allows the communications to travel through the atmosphere with minimal interference. Ideally, the rover would be able to shoot a signal straight to a satellite in orbit around Earth. When you’re trying to fire signals off from an alien planet, that can be a killer feature.

Another perk: This new tech could increase both communication speed, and the amount of viable communication time, between Earth and Mars in future missions. Needless to say, that’s huge. It could give research teams more active time with rovers on the ground, and once we get humans up there, we’ll be able to keep in touch more reliably.

(Via Space, The Conversation)