Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thursday science & technology bashing

An exciting news update from our very own CSIRO:

The US space agency NASA has announced that CSIRO research scientist, Dr John Bunton, is to receive a NASA Space Act Board Award for research into the development of a novel ‘beamformer’ capable of providing a live video link from Mars.

Well actually, the best that could be achieved is an almost-live video link from Mars, given that the absolute limitation imposed by special relativity means any video link from Mars will have an unavoidable delay of anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes, depending on the relative positions of Earth and Mars within the celestial clockwork.

Anyway, Dr Bunton is to receive the award for developing a design for the ‘Deep Space Array Based Network Beamformer’ in which video data from a ‘large antenna array’...

... is divided into narrow channels and transported to beamformer boards. Each board sums the narrow channel data from all 400 antennas. This data can then be reconstructed back into a broadband signal.

This all sounds quite splendid... but it’s one thing to design a system, while it’s quite another to get it to work. The Large Hadron Collider is a handsome design — if only it had legs! The latest news has it that the LHC will be down for repairs until March 2009.

We’re assured, however, that a “prototype system [of the ‘beamformer’] has been built at the JPL and shown to work on signals from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn.”

Unfortunately we seem to have missed the first-ever ‘live’ video link from Saturn (albeit with up to 90 minutes delay) ... unless maybe someone’s put it up on YouTube...?

Apparently the ‘beamformer’ solution is necessary because “the current Deep Space Network does not have enough ‘sensitivity’ for the task , even with its 70m antenna.”

Obviously, then, what’s needed is a more sensitive, new-age Deep Space Network antenna. I’ll take the credit for this revolutionary brainwave — and the award, thanks NASA — but I’m afraid I’ll have to delegate the actual development and design to the boffins.

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