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February 20, 2019updated 22 Feb 2019 10:00am

Space X-rays could hold key to high-speed data transfer across galaxies

By Lucy Ingham

NASA has announced that it will begin tests of space X-rays in a bid to develop the deep space communications technology of the future.

Set to be trialled on the International Space Station (ISS) within the next few months, X-ray communications, known as XCOM, have the potential to be dramatically better than radio and infrared-based communications, which are currently the standard for space missions.

This is because X-rays boast far shorter wavelengths than radio and infrared, meaning more data can be sent using the same amount of power.

Furthermore, they are also capable of cutting through the plasma sheath that builds up around spacecraft as they move at hypersonic speeds. This same sheath currently cuts off radio frequency communications for multiple seconds at a time, limiting the rate of communications.

In time, space X-rays could make the transfer of data at a rate of gigabits-per-second a practical reality for deep space missions.

Space X-rays could prove vital to deep space missions

The improved data transfer rates offered by space X-rays means that the technology could be invaluable to deep space missions, making it possible to transfer research data and maintain close communications at a far better rate than is currently viable.

While this prospect is some way off as yet, the demonstration on the ISS, which will showcase a device known as the Modulated X-ray Source, or MXS, is a vital first step.

“We’ve waited a long time to demonstrate this capability,” said Jason Mitchell, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who helped develop the technology.

“For some missions, XCOM may be an enabling technology due to the extreme distances where they must operate.”

The idea of using space X-rays for communications has been around for over a decade, however it may be only the start of the technology’s use in space. Mitchell believes that other applications of the technology may emerge as its use is explored further.

“Our goal for the immediate future is finding interested partners to help further develop this technology,” he said.