Data: The intangible accelerant of the new space age

By Alex McMullan

It has been 50 years since man first walked on the Moon. This achievement was a technological triumph but would not have happened without calculated risk taking every step of the way, some of which cost lives.

From the Mercury and Gemini programmes, which laid the foundations for lunar exploration, to the Apollo series, which achieved the ultimate goal, discoveries were made and technologies developed that broke new ground. These missions were at the absolute limits of what the technology of the age could achieve.

We are now entering a new space age with commercial operators who, on the cusp of their own first manned flights, are likely to dominate space in the future. From SpaceX, pioneers of reusable rockets, to Blue Origin Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic, innovators in the developing field of space tourism, a central drive has been to reduce costs and open up space for business.

Thousands of individual design innovations have enabled this market to grow – new materials, 3D printing, smaller geometries for semiconductors have all contributed but there is a key, less tangible, but essential ingredient – data.

A giant leap for data capacity

During the first space age, slide rules and manual calculation gave way to electronic computers. Much of the data was gathered by test pilots, flying craft and bringing back what data they could, which was very limited.

Telemetry data when available was, by today’s standards, virtually non-existent and was squeezed in alongside essential voice communications. Apollo 11 telemetry could be transmitted at a maximum of 51.2kbps – about 200 times lower capacity than a typical 4G mobile phone connection.

To find capacity for the TV signal carrying those famous first steps NASA had to make system changes, 700 kHz of bandwidth was freed up – enough for a specially designed TV camera, sending just 320 lines at 10 frames per second – far lower resolution than the TV of the time, but adequate to record that moment of history.

We have now seen our first 4K UHD broadcasts live from the International Space Station and routinely watch multiple live HD feeds of launches and orbital manoeuvres. That leap in data capacity has carried over to telemetry; each mission now creates masses of data which is available in real time and for later analysis.

Data and the new space age

The availability of this data is feeding the development cycle, refining simulation models and enabling engineers to test innovations. This in turn creates the fast and confident developments which have enabled the likes of SpaceX to design and successfully fly two different commercial launch systems and a crew capsule in the 17 years since the company was founded.

It is not just the launch business that has been transformed by data. NASA’s Deep Space Network, a worldwide system of space communication facilities serving all the agencies’ missions, has massively increased its capacity to meet demand.

It is now capable of supporting transmissions of 100Mbps. And in the future this capacity will only increase. NASA estimates that capacity must increase tenfold per decade to meet the needs of future missions.  As of May 2019, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) alone had returned more than 361 terabits of data.

Supporting future space travel

As higher resolution cameras become common and sensors are miniaturised, more data will flow.  With discoveries being made today using new analysis of data from thirty year old missions it is critical that this data is safeguarded in usable form – unlike much of the Apollo telemetry data which was lost when a shortage of data tapes led NASA to wipe them for reuse!

The data being gathered now will form the basis of mission planning for the next 50 years.

As a new space race accelerates and commercial operators begin flying manned missions beyond earth orbit, space travel will remain a risky endeavour.

No matter how much data is gathered, how many simulations are run, or how often launches are successful – spaceflight will not become a routine risk-free activity. It takes courage to ride a rocket.

As we look to the next 50 years of spaceflight, we salute the courage of the past and the future generations of space explorers and look forward to seeing the first human steps on Mars in glorious red tinged 4k UHD.

Read more: UK plans Moon communications system with NASA-UK Space Agency signing