NASA's revolutionary laser communications mission: 6 things you need to know (2023)

Illustration of NASA's Laser Communications Relay demonstration, which uses laser links to communicate with the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA'sDemonstration of laser communication relays(LCRD) will use laser communication systems to transmit data from space to earth. Below are six things you need to know about NASA's revolutionary LCRD mission.

1. Laser communications will change the way NASA gets information to and from space.

Since the beginning of space exploration, NASA has used radio frequency systems to communicate with astronauts and spacecraft. However, as space missions generate and collect more data, the need for improved communication capabilities increases. LCRD harnesses the power ofLaser communication, which uses infrared light instead of radio waves to encode and transmit information to and from Earth.

Both radio waves and laser infrared light waves are forms of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths at different points in the spectrum. Missions encode their scientific data into the electromagnetic signals to send back to Earth.

The infrared light used for laser communications differs from radio waves because it occurs at a much higher frequency, allowing engineers to pack more data into each transmission. More data simultaneously delivers more information and discoveries about space.

Using infrared lasers, LCRD will transmit data from geosynchronous orbit to Earth at 1.2 gigabits per second (Gbps). At that speed and distance, you could download a movie in less than a minute.

(Video) Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) Ready for Launch

LCRD will fly as a hosted payload aboard a Department of Defense spacecraft as part of the Space Test Program (STP-3) mission. LCRD will continue NASA's research into laser communications to support future missions to the Moon and beyond. Photo credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

2. Laser communications will allow spacecraft to send more data home in a single downlink.

If you were alive in the late '80s and early '90s, you'll remember terrestrial Internet dial-up speeds—slow and painful. The addition of laser communications to spacecraft is similar to how humanity harnessed high-speed internet with technologies like fiber optic networks: revolutionary.

Radio waves versus optical waves. Photo credit: NASA

Our home internet connections these days make it possible to bring high definition videos, shows and content to our screens almost instantly. This is partly due to the fiber optic links, which send laser light densely packed with data through plastic or glass cables, creating a faster user experience.

The same concept - minus the fiber optic cables - is applied to space-based laser communications, allowing spacecraft to send high-resolution images and video over laser links.

With existing laser communications, spacecraft can send back more data at once in a single download. NASA and the aerospace industry are taking advantage of these new developments, creating more missions that use lasers to complement radio frequency satellites.

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3. The payload has two optical modules or telescopes,for receiving and sending laser signals.

LCRD is a relay satellite with many highly sensitive components that enable enhanced communications. As a relay, LCRD eliminates the need for user missions to have a direct line of sight to antennas on Earth. LCRD has two optical terminals - one terminal receives data from a user spacecraft, while the other transmits data to ground stations on Earth.

The LCRD payload in the Goddard Space Flight Center clean room. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan

LCRD's modems translate digital data into laser signals, which are then transmitted by the relay's optical modules via coded light beams that are invisible to the human eye. LCRD can both transmit and receive data, creating a continuous path for the flow of mission data to and from space. Together, these capabilities make LCRD NASA's first two-way end-to-end optical relay.

These are just a few of the components that make up the LCRD payload, which together is the size of a king-size mattress.

4. LCRD depends on two ground stations in California and Hawaii.

Once LCRD receives and encodes information, the payload sends the data to ground stations on Earth, each equipped with telescopes to receive the light and modems to translate the encoded light back into digital data.

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Ground Stations by LCRDare known as Optical Ground Stations (OGS)-1 and -2 and are located atTable Mountain in Southern California, and furtherHaleakala volcano on Maui, Hawaii.

While laser communications can offer higher data transmission rates, atmospheric disturbances -- such as clouds and turbulence -- can disrupt laser signals as they travel through Earth's atmosphere.

The locations for OGS-1 and OSG-2 were chosen for their clear weather conditions and remote, high-altitude locations. Most of the weather that occurs in these areas takes place below the tops of the mountains, leaving relatively clear skies perfect for laser communications.

5. LCRD allows governments, academia and commercial partners to test laser capabilities from geosynchronous orbit.

LCRD will prove the viability of laser communications systems from geostationary orbit - some 22,000 miles above the Earth's surface.

Before supporting other missions, LCRD will spend two years conducting tests andtry it. During this time, OGS-1 and OGS-2 act as "missions", sending data from one station to LCRD and then to the other.

LCRD transmits data from the space station to Earth. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan

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LCRD will test the laser functionality with experiments from NASA, other government agencies, academia and commercial companies. Some of these experiments include studying atmospheric disturbances in laser signals and demonstrating reliable relay service operation.

These tests will allow the aerospace community to learn from LCRD and further refine the technology for future implementation. NASA offers these opportunities to increase knowledge about laser communications and to promote their operational use.

After its experimental phase, LCRD will support space missions, including an optical terminal to be installed on the International Space Station. This terminal will collect data from onboard science experiments and then transmit the information to LCRD for relay to Earth.

6. LCRD is one of many exciting and upcoming laser missions.

LCRD is NASA's first-ever laser communications relay system. There is howevermany missionsunder development that will demonstrate and test additional laser communications capabilities.

NASA laser communications missions. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan

  • ThatOrion Artemis II optical communications system(O2O) terminal will enable ultra-high definition video transmission via infrared light between Earth and Artemis II astronauts traveling around the moon.
  • In 2026 thePsycheThe mission will reach its destination - an asteroid more than 240 million kilometers from Earth. Psyche will wear themOptical communication in space(DSOC) Payload to test laser communications against the unique challenges of space exploration.

All of these missions will help the aerospace community standardize laser communications for implementation on future missions. With lasers lighting the way, NASA can gather more information from space than ever before.

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LCRD is a NASA payload aboard the US Department of Defense Space Test Program Satellite-6 (STPSat-6). STPSat-6, part of the Space Test Program 3 (STP-3) mission, will be launched from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket. STP is operated by the United States Space Force's Space Systems Command.

LCRD is led by Goddard and works in partnership with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and the United StatesWITHLincoln laboratory. LCRD is funded by NASA's Technology Demonstration Missions program, part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, and the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program at NASA Headquarters.


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