MIT professors attack last-million-mile problem

If you think your wireless is slow, imagine what it's like to be a scientist waiting for data being beamed back from Mars via existing wireless RF technology. "It can take hours,'' says Karl Berggren, assistant professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

But Berggren and his colleagues have developed a tiny light detector that may lead to high-speed optical transmissions over interplanetary distances. The upshot could be real-time collection of large amounts of data from space, and ultimately colour video transmissions between astronauts in outer space and scientists on earth.

Single-photon detectors aren't new, but they have not been speedy or efficient at detecting light. However, Berggren added a "photon trap'' an anti-reflection coating to boost the efficiency of the detectors.

The "photon trap'' consists of a nanowire detector, a carefully measured gap of glass and a mirror. The nanowire is tightly coiled then cooled to just above absolute zero. At that temperature it becomes a superconductor and can detect the absorbed photons.

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