NASA 'holoported' a doctor to the International Space Station

'Star Trek' like future is already here.
Ameya Paleja
NASA flight surgeon, Dr. Josef Schmid gives a space greeting Oct. 8, 2021, as he is holoported on to the International Space StationEuropean Space Agency

Onboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronaut Thomas Pesquet interacted with NASA's flight surgeon Dr. Josef Schmidt in October last year. What was different about this interaction was that Schmidt's hologram was projected on the ISS, while he was comfortably sitting on Earth, NASA said in a press release earlier this month. 

NASA termed this technique holoportation - an amalgamation of the words hologram and teleportation that take us a step further than the 2D (two-dimensional) interactions that we are quite used to by now. In this technique, high-quality three-dimensional (3D) images are captured, compressed, and transmitted in real-time and then displayed over a mixed reality display. 

How did NASA do this? 

To achieve this feat, NASA collaborated with AEXA Aerospace, a Houston-based company that provides custom software for mixed and virtual reality applications. Using Microsoft's HoloLens, a mixed reality display device, a HoloLens Kinect camera, and AEXA custom software, NASA could bring about an interaction between the two parties where they could see, hear and interact in 3D, as though they were sitting on the same room.

"It doesn't matter that the space station is traveling 17,500 mph and in constant motion in orbit 250 miles above Earth," Schmid said in the press release about the interaction. "the astronaut can come back three minutes or three weeks later and with the system running, we will be there in that spot, live on the space station.”

If this is the present, what is the future? 

This two-way communication demonstration is the precursor to a more extensive application of the technology in future NASA missions where astronauts can not only seek medical services but also welcome VIP visitors at the ISS, who are being beamed up from the Earth. 

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As humanity looks to explore new horizons for its crewed space missions, these newer forms of communication will help astronauts stay connected with mission control, medical teams as well as at a personal level with family and friends. 

However, there is also the hurdle of communication delays that needs to be yet resolved. As the press release notes, a communication delay of 20 minutes exists for all modes of communication between Earth and planet Mars and still needs to be overcome for seamless communication. 

Back on Earth, the technology can be used to reach extreme environments such as research centers on Antarctica or offshore oil rigs, and remote expertise can also be made available at short notice, without the need for transportation. 

Teleportation can wait, while Holoportation does the job for now.