Skov notes possible role of amateur radio tech with Mars OTH communications

(Source: Southgate ARC)

Over-the-horizon communication on Mars

ARRL highlights a post by The Space Weather Woman, Dr. Tamitha Skov, that notes the role amateur radio technology could play in over-the-horizon radio communications on Mars

I am still smiling at the huge response I got to a post I put up on Twitter this week. A newbie to our Space Weather community dared to talk about Amateur Radio as if it were an outdated hobby– whoops, bad idea. I gently educated him.
In doing so, I roused many radio amateurs and emergency communicators, who added their own comments and talked about their own personal experiences in the field. It was very gratifying.

What I hadn’t expected, however, was the strong interest in the concept that amateur radio will be critical to establishing over-the-horizon radio communications on planets like Mars in the near future.

This idea brings me back to how we managed to communicate over long distances many decades before we had satellites, internet or cellular networks. In terms of wireless communications on Earth, we were very much in the same place back in the early 1900s that we find ourselves in now when we think about colonizing Mars.
Yet few people realize that despite all our advanced technology, we can’t bring a cell phone to Mars. We will need to fall back on our ‘old ways’ of doing things when it comes to communicating on other planets. Isn’t it funny how ‘old’ things become ‘new’ again?

Source ARRL

Space Weather Woman

Dr. Tamitha Skov’s latest video report:

Click here to view on YouTube.

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8 thoughts on “Skov notes possible role of amateur radio tech with Mars OTH communications

  1. DanH

    How much power would be required to exploit Martian sky wave transmission for long distance radio communications on Mars? We don’t even know how sky wave transmission would work on Mars. The magnetic field bears little resemblance to that found on Earth but it does exist . The magnetic field has a profound influence on the ability of the ionosphere to refract radio waves. Skov is correct that we should keep an open mind to the possibilities of radio communication on Mars. Like Marconi in the 1890’s we are looking at a lot of unknowns.

  2. Laurence N.

    This is probably the worst place to make this point, but I’m going to do it anyway. When discussing communications on Mars, the technology related to amateur radio or any type of traditional radio are unlikely to be seen. The radio environment of the 1900s is dramatically different from that of today. In the 1900s, radio was a new subject, but so was everything else–human use of electricity wasn’t that old and all sorts of technologies were completely absent. Of course it’s interesting to consider the technology from that era. However, the radio communications that you would want in a completely new environment will want to look a lot more like today’s cell phones than 1930’s radio. For one thing, any data sent between the planets will need to arrive intact. The signals we’re sending out won’t really be any use on Mars. The loudest shortwave stations that can be heard everywhere on Earth won’t make it to Mars. Those communications will need to be directed at the red planet, probably from a satellite. Most importantly, the communication needs to get there intact, without the risk of being obscured by static. That means digital, and probably text. The data can be encoded such that it either gets there correctly or not, and if it fails to arrive, the corresponding satellite in Mars orbit responds and asks for the signal again.
    On the planet itself, communications between groups that are far apart will rely on a number of radio methods, but a primary problem will be power supply. Think of it. Mars has no petroleum, no rivers for hydroelectric, no coal, and no nuclear reactor should some people find uranium available. You can get power, using solar panels, batteries of various types, and eventually using wind power (not the kind you can get on Earth, though). Still, it would be wasteful to use that on a major transmitter like the ones seen in 1900s-era radio stations. Even the amateur radio equipment of today can take quite a bit of power. Data that is encoded into digital packets can be sent with less power, and systems can be built to deal with the data through multiple types of networks that can be optimized for whatever power source is in use. No, you can’t just take a cell phone over and expect it to work. You can, however, take a cell phone and a small cell station and then it will work. Of course, that would also be very wasteful of precious power, but it’s closer than a set of ham sets. You can do modern digital communication without a central network, too.
    I’m not trying to slag off amateur radio people. After all, I’m reading the SWLing post. I still feel, however, that perhaps people haven’t really thought this through. Radio waves are going to be used, but the mechanisms won’t look like traditional radio, as stated. Just because antennas get set up to communicate doesn’t mean that 1900s-style radio will be used. Just as the fact that they’ll be using electricity doesn’t mean we’re reinvigorating technology from the 1860s. Whatever happens, it will be very interesting.

    1. TomL

      Have to agree with you. Dealing with reality is a challenge and digital will be the way to go, just on the power consumption alone and the packet re-transmission needed like on any wide-area-network. Even antennas will have to be redesigned to be more compact and adjust automatically to different frequency bands and with low power LNA’s. DSP radio’s on steroids!

      There are other challenges, too. The large CME blast in September that faced away from Earth but somewhat facing Mars may have been strong enough to kill any astronauts on the surface of that less protected planet. Electronics would also have to be hardened to allow for a more energetic environment without shorting out (but at least they seem to have this part figured out well). Maybe more robot missions first before humans are put at risk.

    2. RonF

      I sort of agree – but less because “… the technology related to amateur radio or any type of traditional radio are unlikely to be seen”, and more because it’ll be a re-application of propagation theory from basic principles to predict the most viable modes & robust modulation schemes.

      But what it won’t really need is the re-development of those basic principles – providing the science holds essentially true (and as far as we know, it does) they’ll still be valid.

      Or, to look at it another way: hams have a long history of experimentation. That provided the data from which were able to develop the basic principles of propagation. And from those principles we’ve been able to develop models for predicting propagation behaviour of everything from the troposphere to the magnetosphere. But we now have those basic principles & models, and we’re learning more and more about the electromagnetic structure of the Martian *sphere. We’re already able to plug what we’ve learned of that structure into the models and & predict behaviour to some degree.

      We don’t need the background data the early hams provided to make those predictions. We don’t even need to go back and re-do all of it on Mars (in fact, from a modelling PoV it’s better if we _don’t_ do that, at least at first). What’s missing is the off-site validation of the predictions…

    3. ecedrif

      At the start of twentieth century lot of radio device were powered by dynamo, and of course Marsian’s pioneer won’t use cw for transmitting. I mean, in a world which give up long and medium wave to put in place internet and cellar phone network, freshly graduate engineers and scientist probably work on higher frequency. It may important to conserve expertise of HF technology if you want to use it for “space colonization” with the next generations (a generation, about 30 years from parents to child) as, i guess, we need to wait a long time before the first Mars to Mars long range transmission will be established.

  3. ecedrif

    HF long range radio facilities are easiest to deploy than a cellar phone network, even it musn’t be really easy to deploy any radio facilities on Mars. Anyway, will waves work in Mars’s atmosphere as in Earth’s one?


      Because the Martian ionosphere is less dense than ours, the MUF (maximum usable frequency) will be much lower than earth – closer to 4 or 5 MHz. But the fundamental concept of over the horizon comm should be feasible.


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