I asked a question here about returning to Earth a physical memory capsule along with soil samples, as a complement to radio operations as today. This might return a much larger amount of data compared with radio today, but of course only at the end of the mission.

How useful would it be for a sample return mission like Mars2020 or Hayabusa2, to be able to return much more data? Would the choice of instruments change to allow for higher sampling rates, higher resolution, more filters et cetera? Is Big Data science instruments from an interplanetary mission even a possibility, or is today's bandwidth good enough for any conceivable payload?

  • $\begingroup$ Deep space communication will probably convert to optical at some point, which can provide much higher gain and bandwidth. I don't know if will exceed the rate at which interesting data can be generated though. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 0:28

1 Answer 1


Sample returns are expensive and risky. Radio is simple and reliable. Radio bandwidth on a particular mission is determined by several engineering tradeoffs. Higher bandwidth requires either larger antennas, more output power, or more complicated processing.

Spacecraft are typically limited in mass, power and compute capabilities. What most missions have plenty of, is time. Lower bitrate takes longer, but allows more mass and power to be used by other experiments. This is often a highly desirable tradeoff.

Missions like New Horizons that have a fairly limited time to record lots of observations do so to a data storage device, and then spend months or years relaying the data back to Earth during the long coast to the next target.

  • $\begingroup$ Is it really "simple" to use up the Deep Space Network? If you're doing a soil return anyway, like OsirisRex will, then why not throw a memory card into the return kit, and upgrade the sampling frequency of the instruments accordingly? $\endgroup$
    – LocalFluff
    Commented Jan 24, 2015 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ What are the chances that data will never make it back to Earth intact on a sample return? All you have to do to get data back from DSN is schedule the use of it. You're pretty much guaranteed you'll get your data back with DSN. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ I suppose if you're doing a sample return anyway it wouldn't take much extra effort to put some data storage in the return spacecraft. But I wouldn't rely on it to get my most critical data back. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 25, 2015 at 0:14

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