NASA testing space-to-Earth optical communications — GCN

NASA testing space-to-Earth optical communications

NASA will soon be testing its first two-way, laser relay communications system.

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which launched Dec. 7 aboard the Defense Department’s Space Test Program Satellite 6, will validate sending and receiving high-resolution images, videos and data from geosynchronous orbit to ground stations in California and Hawaii. The data will be sent over infrared lasers at a rate of 1.2 gigabit/sec, almost double the rate of the 2013 Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, which used a 622 megabit/sec optical signal to transmit data down the moon, and 10 to 100 times greater than radio frequency systems traditionally used by spacecraft, NASA officials said.

Besides the higher bandwidth, laser communications systems are smaller, lighter and use less power than radio frequency systems, so they can be used to advance robotic and human exploration across the solar system.

What makes LCRD different from commercial satellite communications is its ability to transmit data to Earth. Today’s satellite constellations use optical networks to share data, but they still largely rely on radio frequency links to send data back to ground systems because the atmosphere distorts laser signals, NASA said.

“This launch introduces an exciting new technology for space missions,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters. “Demonstrating this innovative way of communicating with spacecraft will open the door for this technology to expand the horizons of future space missions.”

LCRD will spend two years optimizing optical communications for space and conducting experiments for the commercial aerospace community government agencies and university researchers.  Later, LCRD will serve as a relay between an optical communications terminal on the International Space Station and ground stations on Earth.

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