By Kendall Murphy
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
GREENBELT, Md. — NASA uses lasers to send information to and from Earth, using invisible beams to streak across the sky, sending terabytes of data — images and video — to increase our knowledge of the universe. This capability is known as laser or optical communications, even though these eye-safe infrared beams cannot be seen by human eyes.
“We are excited about the promise that laser communications will offer in the years to come,” said Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator and program manager for Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These missions and demonstrations usher in NASA’s new Decade of Light in which NASA will work with other government agencies and the commercial sector to dramatically expand future communications capabilities for space exploration and enable economic opportunities. dynamic and solid.”
Laser communication systems provide missions with increased data rates, meaning they can send and receive more information in a single transmission compared to traditional radio waves. In addition, the systems are lighter, more flexible and safer. Laser communications can supplement radio frequency communications, which most NASA missions use today.
Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD)
On December 7, 2021, the Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD) launched into orbit, approximately 22,000 miles from Earth to test laser communications capabilities. LCRD is the agency’s first technology demonstration of a two-way laser relay system. Now that the LCDR is in orbit, NASA’s laser communications advances Carry on.
LCDR Experimenter Program
In May 2022, NASA certified that the LCRD is ready to conduct experiments. These experiments test and perfect the laser systems – the overall goal of the mission. Experiments provided by NASA, other government agencies, universities, and industry measure the long-term effects of the atmosphere on laser communication signals; assess the technology’s applicability for future missions; and testing in-orbit laser relay capabilities.
“We will start receiving some experimental results almost immediately, while others are long-term and it will take time for trends to emerge over the two-year experimental period of the LCRD,” Rick said. Butler, project manager for the experimenter program at LCRD in NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “LCRD will answer questions from the aerospace industry about laser communications as an operational option for high bandwidth applications.”
“The program is always looking for new experiences, and anyone interested should reach out,” Butler said. “We tap into the laser communications community and these experiments will show how optics will work for international organizations, industry and academia.”
NASA continues to accept proposals new experiments to help refine optical technologies, increase knowledge and identify future applications.
The LCDR will even relay data submitted by the public shortly after launch in the form of New Year’s resolutions shared with NASA social media accounts. These resolutions will be transmitted from a ground station in California and relayed by LCRD to another ground station located in Hawaii as another demonstration of LCRD’s capabilities.
TeraByte Infrared Delivery (TBIRD)
Recently after the LCDR, the TeraByte Infrared Delivery (TBIRD) payload launched May 25, 2022, on the Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) mission, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station as part of SpaceX’s Transporter-5 rideshare mission. TBIRD will feature 200 gigabit per second data downlinks – the highest optical throughput NASA has ever achieved.
TBIRD continues NASA’s optical communications infusion by demonstrating the benefits that laser communications could have for near-Earth science missions that capture important data and large, detailed images. TBIRD returns terabytes of data in a single pass, demonstrating the benefits of higher bandwidth and giving NASA greater insight into the capabilities of laser communications on small satellites. TBIRD is the size of a tissue box!
“In the past, we’ve designed our instruments and spacecraft around the constraint of how much data we can bring down or back from space to Earth,” said Beth Keer, TBIRD project manager. “With optical communications, we are exploding the amount of data we can report. This is truly a game-changing ability.
Low Earth Orbit LCDR User Terminal and Integrated Amplifier (ILLUMA-T)
Launching in early 2023 in SpaceX’s Dragon Vault 27e resupply services trade mission international space stationthe Low Earth Orbit LCDR User Terminal and Integrated Amplifier (ILLUMA-T) will bring laser communications to the orbiting laboratory and provide the astronauts who live and work there with enhanced data capabilities.
ILLUMA-T will collect information from experiments on board the station and send the data to the LCDR at 1.2 gigabits per second. At this rate, a feature film could be downloaded in less than a minute. The LCDR will then transmit this information to ground stations in Hawaii or California.
“ILLUMA-T and the LCRD will work together to become the first laser system to demonstrate the communication links between low Earth orbit and geosynchronous ground orbit,” said Chetan Sayal, project manager for ILLUMA-T at the NASA Godard.
Orion Artemis II Optical Communication System (O2O)
The Orion Artemis II Optical Communication System (O2O) will bring laser communications to the Moon aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft during the Artemis II assignment. O2O will be able to transmit high-resolution images and video when astronauts return to the lunar region for the first time in over 50 years. Artemis II will be the first crewed lunar flight to demonstrate laser communication technologies, sending data back to Earth at a downlink rate of up to 260 megabits per second.
“By infusing new laser communication technologies into Artemis missions, we’re giving our astronauts more access to data than ever before,” said Steve Horowitz, O2O project manager. “The higher the data rates, the more information our instruments can send back to Earth, and the more science our lunar explorers can do.”
NASA’s laser communication efforts also extend into deep space. Currently, NASA is working on a future terminal that could test laser communications against extreme distances and harsh pointing constraints.
Whether bringing laser communications to missions near Earth, the Moon, or deep space, the infusion of optical systems will be an integral part of future NASA missions. The higher data rates of laser communications will allow exploration and science missions to send more data back to Earth and discover more about the universe. NASA will be able to use information from images, videos and experiments to not only explore the near-Earth region, but also to prepare for future missions to Mars and beyond.