Cisco Webex wants to help NASA astronauts make video calls from space

Cisco claims it has come away with some new key innovations for Webex after the platform was used in NASA’s Artemis 1 mission, the Orion spacecraft’s 25-day unmanned trip around the moon.

The video conferencing software formed part of Callisto, a “technology-demonstration payload” consisting of an Alexa and an iPad running Webex, all housed in a radiation-hardened casing. 

Lockheed Martin, makers of the Orion capsule, partnered with Amazon and Cisco to test the unit during the mission. 

Webex modifications

The purpose of Callisto was to see how today’s consumer tech could be used effectively in space. For its part, Cisco wanted Webex to facilitate face-to-face interaction as best it could between those on earth and those in space, important on long and lonely space missions that keep astronauts so far apart from their loved ones. 

Since the mission was uncrewed, cameras were placed facing the iPad to see if the video feed from mission control made its way. In order to operate the software, Cisco also developed automated macros to perform certain functions.

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

One problem stemmed from lack of an internet connection. NASA uses its deep space network to communicate with spacecraft, which is composed of three satellite dishes around the world, so Webex had to leverage this instead to transmit its video signals. 

The issue was that Cisco was only allocated a bandwidth of around 128kb/s, so Webex engineers had to modify the software to shrink the video signals by a factor of ten, whilst still retaining a viable quality. 

The other problem was latency. Luk said that using Webex between any points on earth only ever results in latency figures around 40-100 milliseconds, but during Artemis 1, the latency encountered was between five and seven seconds. Even when Webex was used on the International Space Station, it didn’t encounter latency issues on this scale. So engineers had to create new algorithms to account for this latency, ensuring that audio and video still synced up. 

Another lesson Cisco learned was more conceptual rather than technological. After some time testing Callisto during the mission, Luk said they discovered that slow communication problems could be offset by making use of drawings and pictures instead, using the whiteboard feature within Webex and a Cisco Webex Board in mission control. 

As well as communicating certain ideas quicker, there was also less latency in using these methods than a direct camera feed, as Luk noted that virtual scrawls contain less data than video feeds, making for quicker transmission times. 

Moon surface and Earth on the horizon

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Dima Zel)

Now that the mission is complete, Luk suggested Webex had succeeded on all fronts, and as a bonus, claimed it even set the record for the longest-distance video call during the mission, at around 260,000 miles between endpoints.

What’s more, he claimed that the enhancements and insights resulting from the mission have bled into consumer versions of Webex. For instance, the open-source AV1 codec that Webex uses was modified to fix the aforementioned latency and bandwidth problems, with Luk suggesting that it has contributed back to the project for other users of the codec.

Luk also suggested that some of the automated macros that were developed will be seeing their way into the software.

Luk conceded that there were still human interaction issues when communicating at such vast distances. He expressed his wish that some kind of UI prompt could have been developed, had time allowed, to let users know when the signal had reached the person on the other end. This way, they would be able to tell the difference between latency and a user or technological error if their interlocutor remained unresponsive. 

Although subsequent Artemis missions are in the pipeline, Cisco doesn’t know whether it will get the call-up again. And looking even further ahead, crewed mission to Mars are also being discussed by NASA. If such dreams do materialize, then it seems Luk is confident that Webex would be ready for the long journey ahead.

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