Categories: Collaboration

Turning Pipedreams into Reality: Webex in Space

When we think about deep space exploration, many people might dream of what seems possible. I too have been a big dreamer over the years, and especially when I was a young boy. I remember watching Star Trek with my dad and seeing the crew regularly making first contact face-to-face with new alien species – and I used to wonder, how did they make that happen?  What is the innovation behind it?  How do *we* get to that future?

Fast forward to now, that same curiosity continues to grow along with my innate desire to dream of what’s possible. This is why I’m so excited to work for one of the most innovative tech companies around, Cisco, as we rally around the Art of Possible with Webex. It’s about dreaming BIG and turning pipedreams into a reality with our technology. This is also why I am the proud executive sponsor for our work with the Callisto technology demonstration – our partnership with Lockheed Martin and Amazon to showcase how technologies like Webex and Alexa could help improve the deep space experience for astronauts. And with the successful launch of the Orion spacecraft earlier today – we are well on our way towards showing how great future deep space exploration can be.

Callisto truly is an opportunity to bring our best technology, tenacity, and human collaboration together so we can collectively turn pipedreams into a reality.

Celebrating a BIG milestone

And that’s exactly what we did this week! You may have seen on the news how Webex is aboard NASA’s Artemis I mission thanks to the Callisto technology demonstration.

What this means is that we are on our way towards a future where commercial technologies like Webex and Alexa could help improve future deep space exploration. Webex’s role in the Callisto technology demonstration is to facilitate face-to-face communications for astronauts on the spacecraft with humans here on Earth (Mission Control), as well as make it easier to facilitate instruction/collaborative experiences via whiteboarding and annotation to improve the effectiveness of science experimentation in the future where scientists here on Earth can instruct astronauts on the spacecraft.

Keep in mind that these are the same type of collaborative interactions that you would typically do here on Earth – but now the other party can be literally hundreds of thousands, or maybe even someday hundreds of millions of miles away. This is a big milestone for space exploration and a true testament of what’s to come for deep space communication.

Where the journey began

While this is very exciting news – I wanted to take a step back to reflect on how we got here. Our work with the Callisto technology demonstration began around three years ago. It wasn’t called Callisto at that point – it was merely an idea that the few of us who came together had – we believed that we could bring technologies we use everyday and showcase how they could help drive a new generation of deep space exploration. I remember thinking that first time we met with our partners in Houston, led by Callisto’s Chief Engineer Brian Jones, that this was not going to be an easy task. But thanks to many of our existing technologies with Webex, we had a solid baseline to work from – and the partners all worked hard and persevered, fueled by a dream of the possibilities we could unlock if we got this right.

Throughout our project, engineers had to tackle a multitude of unique challenges to deliver the seamless communication required for space travel and deep space exploration. Much different from the solutions that enable us to communicate and virtually meet with others on Earth, space tech is more challenging as there’s extreme distances, limited bandwidth, random but potentially deadly cosmic radiation, and space noise to consider. For instance, video signal to talk with someone in real-time who is on the moon – 240,000 miles away – must travel more than 10 times the Earth’s circumference!  Getting real-time communications to work in Deep Space as it does here on Earth took much more ingenuity to say the least.

Cracking the code on deep space communication.

Learn more about Webex’s role in NASA’s first Artemis mission, enabling us to leave Earth, without leaving home behind.

Deep space video collaboration is a tricky science. Just think about how our internet connections work down here on planet Earth. In modern cities, there is infrastructure in place that can support gigabit speeds and can transfer substantial amounts of information (like HD video) thousands of miles within milliseconds…. while other areas like rural communities might lack these types of capabilities. We faced a similar challenge as part of Callisto the way when it came to networking and bandwidth requirements for deep space video collaboration. NASA has an amazing Deep Space Network which provides us connectivity between Houston Mission Control and the Callisto payload. But the signals being sent are subject to the laws of physics – meaning it takes a long time for signal to get from Earth to the Orion spacecraft, and vice versa. And there’s only so much data we can transfer at a time – our bandwidth is limited given all the other functions that require bandwidth as well.

Fortunately, while the distances involved in deep space communication are clearly significantly greater than those we encounter here on Earth, the core problems and patterns we needed to address were not so dissimilar from some challenges that we have here on Earth even when it comes to providing high-speed internet to rural communities which might lack these types of capabilities. Understanding the need for modern and immersive communication capabilities, we worked tirelessly with Lockheed Martin and Amazon Alexa to address these potential issues and provide a high-quality video experience. We have also taken those learnings and applied them back to challenges down here on Earth. This means not only have we been able to showcase how commercial technology can help improve future deep space exploration, but now deep space exploration is making a material difference here on Earth – moving us towards a better connected and more inclusive experience for anyone on our planet. Over the next 26 days I am so very excited to see what we dreamed about several years ago in the making. This has truly been an exciting journey!

What’s next

So, you’re probably wondering what’s next after Artemis I? How could we further enhance video communication for deep space exploration and human connection? Naturally we intend to further build on this momentum and continue to innovate for the future.

In fact, there are several exciting innovations underway that could help revolutionize deep space exploration. One such example is Webex Hologram, which could be used to bring experiences in space down to planet Earth so more people can experience it virtually. This kind of technology could literally revolutionize the way that space and scientific exploration happens – it is the opportunity to bring that immersive experience up close to anyone who is interested in exploring the stars. We’re not there yet – but imagine when we are – and how this could forever change Deep Space Exploration!

And while the potential Hologram holds is super exciting – there is also our AI capabilities to enhance the communication experience in deep space. Some of my favorite AI features are the language translation and transcription capabilities which could someday help an astronaut communicate with an engineer in mission control in Houston who speaks an entirely different language. We also have advanced media augmentation – for example background noise removal – which could someday help crewmembers more clearly communicate with their counterparts on Earth without the disruption of background noise. Lastly, our computer vision capabilities such as facial recognition could help enhance the overall security and authentication for space crews and staff, improve the familiarity of project teams for anyone communicating with the team from down on Earth. As you can imagine, the possibilities of enhanced communication from space to earth are endless and we are excited about what lies ahead.

Be inspired and learn more

To further demonstrate how we’re thinking about communication in space, I’d like to leave you with this video. You’ll notice that it includes our recent Artemis I mission and it’s a visual reminder about staying close to the “Art of Possible” with Webex.

Published by
Jono Luk

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