David G. Messerschmitt

Roger A. Strauch Professor Emeritus

Dept. of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences

University of California at Berkeley


Contact information and supporting staff

Interstellar communication

Modern communications systems have a very different character than the popular perception of AM or FM modulation of analog signals such as broadcast radio or television. They employ exclusively digital signals, and employ sophisticated coding algorithms mapping information bits into modulation codes. Combined with similar approaches to the compression of sources, orders-of-magnitude improvements in power- and/or bandwidth-efficiency have been obtained. I have been applying modern communications theory and technology to the challenge of  digital communication at interstellar distances. There are three primary applications of this that I have been addressing:


       Interstellar spacecraft. There is increasing attention being paid to the possibility of exploration by robotic space probes within our region of the Galaxy, beyond the reaches of the Solar System. The two most significant challenges are propulsion (not my department) and communication with the spacecraft. A specific concrete project is Breakthrough Starshot, which is seeking microscale spacecraft at the distance of Alpha Centari (see Z Merali, Shooting for a star. Science, 2016.) I am interested in the communication downlink for transferring scientific data in the mission such as Starshot using the most advanced available communication techniques.


Please also see my recent paper on relativistic timekeeping, which argues that relativity theory (especially the special variety) needs to be integrated into our engineering education. It develops a new formulation of special relativity that is more appropriate for that purpose.

Recent papers and reports:

Messerschmitt, D.G. Relativistic timekeeping, motion, and gravity in distributed systems. IEEE Proceedings, August 2017. [link]


Lubin, P., Messerschmitt, D.G., Morrison, I. Interstellar mission communications low background regime. [link]

Messerschmitt, D.G. Design for minimum energy in interstellar communication. Acta Astronautica, 2015. [

Messerschmitt, David G. (2012). Interstellar communication: The case for spread spectrum. Acta Astronautica, 81(1).  [

Messerschmitt, David G; & Morrison, Ian S. (2011). Design of Interstellar Digital Communication Links: Some Insights from Communication Engineering. Acta Astronautica, 78(1), 80 - 89.  [

Messerschmitt, David G. (2013). End-to-end interstellar communication system design for power efficiency. Draft technical report available on arXiv.org.  [

S. K. Blair, D. G. Messerschmitt, J. Tarter, and G. R. Harp, "The Effects of the Ionized Interstellar Medium on Broadband Signals of Extraterrestrial Origin". D. Vakoch, editor, Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence, State University of New York Press, 2011.

Other current activities

I possess an FCC Amateur Radio License. My call sign is KK6KFQ. I find this excellent exposure to the practical side of radio communications, and some cutting-edge experimentation within this community turn out to be directly applicable to interstellar communications as well.


I am a volunteer at the Chabot Space and Science Center, where I introduce the public and school classes to astronomy and space.


Brief biography

David G. Messerschmitt is the Roger A. Strauch Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) at the University of California at Berkeley. The first ten years of his career was spent at Bell Laboratories, where he participated in the exploratory development of digital communications. At Berkeley he has done research in digital communications and audio and video encoding, and has served as the Chair of EECS and the Interim Dean of the School of Information. He is the co- author of five books, including Digital Communication (Kluwer Academic Publishers, Third Edition, 2004). His doctorate in Computer, Information, and Control Engineering is from the University of Michigan, and he is a Life Fellow of the IEEE, a Member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a recipient of the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal recognizing "exceptional contributions to the advancement of communication sciences and engineering".