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NMSU researchers helping NASA develop systems to transmit data from Mars

Two Mars Exploration Rovers are currently giving the public a taste of the information that can be sent back from the surface of Mars.

Future expeditions to Mars are expected to gather even more information - and require more sophisticated technology to send this information back to Earth.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from New Mexico State University is helping NASA study the best ways of transmitting information back from Mars.

"Rovers and sensor networks have a very limited amount of power," said Steve Horan, professor of electrical engineering and director of the Center for Space Telemetering and Telecommunications Systems at NMSU. "It is very difficult to transmit data with so little power."

Future expeditions to Mars are expected to deploy not only mobile rovers, but also fixed sensors that can help planetary scientists measure things such as the temperature and atmospheric properties. Rather than having each of these devices individually transmit data back to Earth, Horan said a system needs to be developed in which information gathered would be transmitted to a base station where it would be collected and sent back to Earth.

Horan and Phillip DeLeon, associate professor of electrical engineering, have a three-year, $650,000 grant from NASA to study technologies that might work for such a system.

Horan and DeLeon said much of the technology already developed for the telecommunications industry can be applied to this problem. For example, software developed to help cellular telephone companies decide where to locate base stations can be used to help determine coverage in a certain area on Mars. The technology used to enable wireless (WiFi) "hotspots" in airports and coffee shops could be used to provide a wireless connection from different pieces of equipment to a base station.

The first year of their research focused on studying how radio waves propagate on Mars. This was done by using high-resolution digital elevation maps of Mars and sophisticated computer simulation software.

"Terrain has a tremendous impact on how radio waves propagate," DeLeon said.

The engineering professors have received assistance on the geography of Mars from NMSU astronomy professor Jim Murphy and Janet Greenlee, a GIS specialist in the geography department.

As a result, the NMSU researchers have been able to determine what sort of coverage there could be if transmitters and receivers were put in selected locations on Mars. Initial research focused on specific areas on Mars that NASA is interested in.

The next year of their research will focus on how WiFi protocols might perform on Mars. After that, they will study how current systems can be modified to make them better for this planetary application.

While a lot of existing technology could be used on Mars, Horan noted that much of it will have to be modified to survive conditions in space. Horan also noted that the techniques they are developing could also be applied to probes put down on the moon or on moons of other planets.