NASA is working on a laser communications technology that could become the high-speed ‘internet’ of the sky by enabling much higher data rates for connections between spacecraft and Earth.
The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will help NASA understand the best ways to operate laser communications systems.
They could enable much higher data rates for connections between spacecraft and Earth, such as scientific data downlink and astronaut communications, NASA said.
“LCRD is the next step in implementing NASA’s vision of using optical communications for both near-Earth and deep space missions,” said Steve Jurczyk, from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which leads the LCRD project.
Laser communications, also known as optical communications, encodes data onto a beam of light, which is then transmitted between spacecraft and eventually to Earth terminals.
This technology offers data rates that are 10 to 100 times better than current radio-frequency (RF) communications systems.
Laser communication systems can be much smaller than radio systems, allowing the spacecraft communication systems to have lower size, weight and power requirements.
Such capability will become critically important as humans embark on long journeys to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
“LCRD is designed to operate for many years and will allow NASA to learn how to optimally use this disruptive new technology,” said Don Cornwell, from NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation programme, which leads the development of the instrument.
“We are also designing a laser terminal for the International Space Station that will use LCRD to relay data from the station to the ground at gigabit-per-second data rates.
“We plan to fly this new terminal in 2021, and once tested, we hope that many other Earth-orbiting NASA missions will also fly copies of it to relay their data through LCRD to the ground,” said Cornwell.
The mission builds upon the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD), a very successful pathfinder mission that flew aboard the Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Environment Explorer in 2013.
While LLCD was first to demonstrate high-data-rate laser communications beyond low-Earth orbit, LCRD will demonstrate the technology’s operational longevity and reliability.
The mission will also test LCRD’s capabilities within many different environmental conditions and operational scenarios.
“We have learned a lot over the years about radio-frequency communications and how it works to make the most of the technology,” Dave Israel, LCRD’s principal investigator, said about the current communications system.
“With LCRD, we will have the opportunity to put laser communications through its paces to test the performance over different weather conditions and times of day to get that experience,” said Israel.