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The Martian Chronicles
Arctic Special - Issue 7, Autumn 2000




Planetary Exploration Networking: The Internet for a crew on Mars
by Steve Braham

A crew inside FMARS - working and relaxing.

A crew inside FMARS - working and relaxing.
When we finally send human explorers to the surface of Mars, we are going to need ways to bring modern networking to the Red Planet itself. NASA and Simon Fraser University have been collaborating with Canada’s Communication Research Centre (CRC), and with funding from the Canadian Space Agency, on PlanetNet - a project to investigate concepts for such a network. Explorers on Mars will use a wide range of tools to explore their surroundings. These will range from fixed experiments such as monitoring weather, to advanced teleoperated robots and spacesuited astronauts roaming around the surface; experiments will need to constantly deliver data back to base. Robots will send back high-resolution data and receive commands; astronauts will transmit their life signs and position, as well as communicate through audio and video with base camp.

The satellite dish providing the HMP team with a communications link.

The satellite dish providing the HMP team with a communications link.
The PlanetNet project is looking at advanced radio systems that can transmit high-speed data over long distances in the Martian environment, including reaching into canyons where much of the interesting scientific studies may happen. These systems use next-generation radio technology developed in Canada, and will eventually form the backbone for an internet over the entire Haughton-Mars field region.

The base will communicate with Earth via high-speed digital links, relaying all the telemetry data, as well as TV images, for Humanity watching back home. The communications network will be accessible to the astronauts from anywhere. For the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP), we use a high-speed space-based networking link back to CRC to connect the region to the Internet back on "Earth". We call this PUF -- the PlanetNet Uplink Facility. Working with our PlanetNet partners, as well as HMP members like Marc Boucher of SpaceRef, we have been able to deliver live data of our research back to the world via the network. PlanetNet provides the primary support for returning field exploration data, telemedicine data, and mission support operations for HMP.

Equipment inside the comms tent.

Equipment inside the comms tent.
Much work needs to be done. We need to understand in what ways radios will behave differently on Mars relative to our Earth-based Mars analogue sites. That means understanding how the Martian atmosphere works, as well as how the surface is different. We need to make systems easy to use, easy to fix, flexible, and robust to extreme temperature, pressure, and radiation effects. Finally, we need to understand what is needed to make these systems easy to deploy on Mars while in a space suit. Can robots position communication elements? How do we power everything, and detect problems? Can we minimize the amount of time a crew must spend on EVA? We are finally taking a first step in putting together the infrastructure that will be needed by humans on Mars - and that makes the research exciting for the PlanetNet team!
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