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Cisco Webex Intends To Assist NASA Astronauts In Conducting Video Calls From Space

As a result of Webex’s participation in the Artemis 1 mission, several new developments have been implemented.

After the Webex platform was used in NASA’s Artemis 1 (opens in a new tab) mission, the Orion spacecraft’s 25-day unmanned trip around the moon, Cisco claims to have discovered several key innovations.

The video conferencing software was included in Callisto, a “technology-demonstration payload” consisting of an Alexa and an iPad running Webex, all enclosed in a radiation-resistant casing.

Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the Orion spacecraft, collaborated with Amazon and Cisco to test the capsule during the mission.

Webex alterations

The objective of Callisto was to determine how modern consumer technology could be utilized in space. For its part, Cisco wanted Webex to facilitate as much face-to-face communication as possible between those on earth and those in space, which is crucial during long, lonely space missions that separate astronauts from their loved ones.

Since the mission was unmanned, iPad-facing cameras were installed to determine if the video feed from mission control made it. To operate the software, Cisco also developed macros that perform specific functions automatically.

At an event attended by TechRadar Pro, Cisco’s VP of Product Management, Jono Luk, described the unique challenges the company faced in making earth-to-space video calls work.

One issue was caused by the absence of an internet connection. NASA uses its deep space network, which consists of three satellite dishes, to communicate with spacecraft; therefore, Webex had to utilize this network to transmit its video signals.

The problem was that Cisco was only allotted 128kb/s of bandwidth, so Webex engineers had to modify the software to reduce the size of the video signals by a factor of ten while preserving their quality.

The second issue was latency. Using Webex between any two points on earth typically results in latency figures between 40 and 100 milliseconds, according to Luk, but during Artemis 1 the latency was between five and seven seconds. Even when Webex was utilized on the International Space Station, it did not experience latency problems of this magnitude. Engineers were required to develop new algorithms to account for this latency and ensure that audio and video remained synchronized.

Another lesson learned by Cisco was conceptual rather than technological. Luk stated that after a period of testing Callisto during the mission, they discovered that slow communication issues could be mitigated by using drawings and pictures instead, utilizing the whiteboard feature of Webex and a Cisco Webex Board in mission control.

Luk observed that virtual scrawls contain less data than video feeds, resulting in faster transmission times, and thus less latency when compared to a direct camera feed.

Now that the mission is complete, Luk asserts that Webex was successful on all fronts and, as a bonus, set the record for the longest-distance video call during the mission, which spanned approximately 260,000 miles.

Moreover, he claimed that the mission’s enhancements and insights have been incorporated into consumer versions of Webex. Webex’s open-source AV1 codec was modified to address the aforementioned latency and bandwidth issues, with Luk indicating that it has contributed to the project for the benefit of other users of the codec.

Luk also suggested that some of the developed automated macros will be incorporated into the software.

Luk acknowledged that there were still issues with human interaction when communicating over such vast distances. If time had permitted, he wished that some kind of user interface prompt could have been created to inform users when the signal had reached the other end. Thus, if their interlocutor remained unresponsive, they would be able to distinguish between latency and user or technological error.

Although additional Artemis missions are in the works, Cisco does not know if it will be called upon again. And looking even further ahead, NASA is also considering crewed missions to Mars. If these hopes come true, it appears that Luk is confident that Webex is prepared for the long journey ahead.

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