NASA’s upcoming laser communications relay demonstration could revolutionize the way the agency communicates with future missions across the solar system.
These lasers could lead to more high-resolution videos and photos from space than ever before, according to the agency.
Since 1958, NASA has used radio waves to communicate with astronauts and space missions. While radio waves have a proven track record, space missions are becoming more complex and collecting more data than before.
Think of an infrared laser as an optical connection to high-speed internet, rather than frustratingly slow dial-up internet. Laser communications will send data back to Earth from geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles (35,406 kilometers) above Earth’s surface at 1.2 gigabits per second, which is like downloading an entire movie in less than a minute.
This will improve data transmission rates 10 to 100 times better than radio waves. Infrared lasers, invisible to our eyes, have shorter wavelengths than radio waves, so they can transmit more data at once.
With the current radio wave system, it would take nine weeks to send out a complete map of Mars – but a laser could do that in nine days.
The Laser Communications Relay Show is NASA’s first end-to-end laser relay system that will transmit and receive data from space to two ground optical stations at Table Mountain, California, and Haleakala, Hawaii. These stations contain telescopes that can receive the light from the laser and translate it into digital data. Unlike radio antennas, laser communication receivers can be up to 44 times smaller. Since the satellite can send and receive data, it is a true two-way system.
The only cutout for ground-based laser receivers Are atmospheric disturbances, such as clouds and turbulences that can interfere with laser signals transmitted through the atmosphere. The remote sites of the two receivers were chosen with this in mind as they both have clear climatic conditions at high altitudes.
Once the mission is in orbit, the team at the operations center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, will activate the laser communications demonstration and prepare it to send the tests to ground stations.
The mission is expected to take two years to conduct tests and experiments before it begins to support space missions, including an optical station that will be installed on the International Space Station in the future. It will be able to send data from science experiments on the space station to the satellite, which will return it to Earth.
The display acts as a relay satellite, eliminating the need for future missions to have line-of-sight antennas directly on the ground. The satellite could help reduce the size, weight, and power requirements for communications on future spacecraft — although this mission is about the size of a king’s order.
This means that launching future missions may be less costly and there will be scope for more scientific tools.
Other missions currently in development that can test laser communication capabilities include the Orion Artemis II optical communications system, which will allow an ultra-high-resolution video feed between NASA and lunar-adventurous Artemis astronauts.
The Psyche mission, which launches in 2022, will reach the asteroid’s destination in 2026. The mission will study a metallic asteroid more than 150 million miles (241 million km) long. away and test a deep space optical communication laser to send data back to Earth.