NASA to zap laser beams to communicate faster with spaceships beyond Earth

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With global missions to the Moon taking shape and private actors planning to venture beyond Mars, constant communication will be key to the survival of interplanetary missions. A new technology demonstration could speed up communications as NASA launches the Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD) mission on December 4.

The mission will showcase the unique capabilities of optical communications, which could be faster than radio waves. Space agencies currently use radio frequency communications to communicate with spacecraft heading towards planets, the Sun, or even circulating on the surface of Mars. However, with more and more generations of data with new missions, a more effective communication support must be put in place.

The LCRD mission will showcase the unique capabilities of optical communications to increase the bandwidth to communicate in space while reducing size, weight and power requirements. The mission will be launched on the Space Test Program Satellite-6 (STPSat-6), the main spacecraft of the Space Test Program 3 (STP-3) mission for the Ministry of Defense.

WHAT IS THE LCRD MISSION?

The laser communication demonstration will be the first end-to-end laser relay system of its kind, sending and receiving data on invisible infrared lasers at a rate of approximately 1.2 gigabits per second from geosynchronous orbit to Earth . NASA said that with the new system, the bandwidth would increase between 10 and 100 times more than radio frequency systems.

The LCRD instrument was installed on board satellite 6 of the US Department of Defense Space Test Program (STPSat-6). Once in orbit, engineers will activate it and transmit the data via infrared lasers. However, before the instrument fires real lasers, engineers will practice sending test data to and from its ground stations. This test data will be sent by radio frequency signals from the mission operations center, and then the LCRD spacecraft will respond with optical signals.

Conceptual image of laser communication relay demo payload transmitting optical signals. (Photo: Nasa)

“Space missions will send their data to LCRD, which will then relay it to designated ground stations on Earth. We have been using communications relay satellites since 1983, when the first tracking and data relay satellite was launched. “NASA said. However, with the laser system, missions are not required to have a direct line of sight to antennas on Earth, instead, the LCRD creates a continuous path for data flowing from missions in space to ground stations on Earth, thus creating a system.


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