Space Dust Data

Wireless technologies have made it possible to surf the Internet from your back yard and beam infrared signals from palm to palm. But amazing as they are, a technology that uses space debris as a natural satellite may leave them all in the dust.

Each day, Earth is bombarded by more than 50 tons of rock and dust that burn up in the atmosphere and leave long trails of gas across the sky. In the 1930s, amateur radio operators discovered they could bounce signals off these trails, and in the 1950s, the U.S. government started using the technique for military applications. Now, a company called StarCom LLC is using it to offer a reliable and inexpensive wireless network.

The system works when a ground antenna points its signal at a particular segment of the sky, like a racquetball player aiming a shot, knowing that the reflection will land in a specific area. As soon as a meteor passes through the atmosphere at that point--usually within a few seconds, but in two minutes at the most--the signal gets bounced back to the ground and received. The recipient then uses the same meteor to bounce an acknowledgment back to the ground station, which transmits the entire message.

Since the messages are sent as compressed packets of data, they take less than a tenth of a second to transmit, and the entire process usually can be completed within a gas trail's half-second average lifetime. This requires that the messages be kept short, usually 50 to 100 characters. "We don't do any voice transmission," says StarCom president Steven J. Becker. The technology is best used in applications such as tracking vehicles or monitoring remote instruments, he says.

StarCom is the only company that has the technology, says Becker, and it lets StarCom offer an alternative to radio or wire-based systems at half the cost. He says StarCom will have complete geographic coverage of the United States within the next 18 months and expects huge demand. "We're actually trying not to get too much press," he says. "When people hear about it, they start calling us all the time." v

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