Space Communications Patent Spans Solar System
This graphic depicts Mobile Satellite Ventures' novel hybrid space communications network for solar system exploration.
Credit: Space News Graphic.

WASHINGTON - When Mobile Satellite Ventures was issued the first-ever U.S. Federal Communications Commission license in 2003 for its concept of creating hybrid satellite and ground-based communications systems, the company already had been working on a slew of related inventions it planned to capitalize on.

So far, 25 of about 100 inventions have been approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the most recent of which includes a hybrid communications system for multiple rovers - or eventually humans - exploring the Moon or Mars.

The inventions are based on Mobile Satellite Ventures? Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC) concept of combining satellite signals with signals from terrestrial repeaters for two-way data and voice communication.

?The fundamental concept of the ATC has created an opportunity for significant innovation,? said Peter Karabinis, senior vice president and chief technology officer with Mobile Satellite Ventures of Reston, Va.

In early October, the company received three patents. By mid-November it expects to have received three more, Karabinis said.

The most far-reaching of the innovations is a concept for establishing an extraterrestrial communications system that, among a variety of scenarios, envisions a satellite orbiting another planet, a base station on that planet and repeaters to relay data to different points on the planet or back to the satellite. That extraterrestrial network also would be able to communicate with Earth-based ground stations and a satellite orbiting Earth.

Lon Levin, co-inventor, with Karabinis, of the extraterrestrial communications concept, said the idea was hatched in 2004 after a visit to NASA and a discussion about the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed on Mars in January that year.

?When we got back to the office, we imagined a future architecture that would enable communications as we expanded our presence on a planet,? said Levin, then a senior officer with Mobile Satellite Ventures who also had co-founded XM Satellite Radio. ?This architecture would not only provide efficiently expandable communications on the surface of a planet, it would also provide an efficient and effective means to have many simultaneous communications between Earth and other planets.?

Karabinis and Levin applied for the patent in April 2004.

Karabinis acknowledges the concept is futuristic and not likely to materialize anytime soon, but he said parts of the innovation might be applied sooner to Earth-based communications. Mobile Satellite Ventures is seeking to expand the extraterrestrial communications patent to Earth-based systems, a process likely to take two years, he said.

One example is their concept for an extraterrestrial communications system that would have the ability to sense what frequencies other nearby ATC components are using in order to avoid interference. These adjustments currently are done manually in Earth-based communications systems.

?With these tweaks that we incorporate into the space-based mutation, if you will, of the ATC, it is now becoming apparent - after the fact - that they may have terrestrial value as well,? Karabinis said.

Mobile Satellite Ventures received two other patents in October, one for a signal processing algorithm that will reduce the processing time for GPS position location, whether or not ATC is involved, and another for the technique used in the handover from satellite to a terrestrial receiver without interruption to the user.

To Levin, who left Mobile Satellite Ventures in 2005 and now is president of SkySevenVentures in Washington, which helps develop primarily space-based new technologies, the extraterrestrial communications patent symbolizes innovation that could energize the commercial space industry.

?A key to our future in space is creating a commercially sustainable economy in space,? Levin said. ?By allowing patents such as ours, the United States is taking another step toward that goal. I hope more will follow.?

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