Science

Delete! NASA prepares a new laser test to accelerate space communications

NASA wants to retest a laser in space to speed up space communications.

After a two-year delay, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) is ready for launch no earlier than December 4. It will fly into space on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket aboard the Department of Defense’s Satellite-6 Space Test Program. (STPSat-6) mission.

The launch of the mission, now expected from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, was delayed due to numerous problems from the initial mission objective of 2019. But the researchers said the timing of the mission was still pending. it’s early enough to benefit the human moon Artemis. landing program that plans to put boots on the moon in 2025.

“That technology is so critical in many ways,” Badri Younes, deputy assistant administrator for NASA’s Space Navigation and Communications program, told reporters about the laser demonstration during a teleconference on Tuesday (November 16).

Related: Dial-up Space Communications System Gets ‘High Speed’ Upgrade

The agency says the lasers will allow 10 to 100 times more data to be sent to Earth than using radio frequencies, satisfying a growing appetite for NASA and commercial space information. Both the agency and the commercial sector are planning numerous missions to the moon in the 2020s using Artemis, the planned Gateway space station, and the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

The transfer of missions to the use of lasers will also avoid crowding problems that plague the radio frequency spectrum, Younes noted; This problem has been accelerated by growing mega-constellations of low Earth orbit satellites, and companies often present regulatory challenges relative to each other’s spectrum.

The demo will not go as far as the moon, but it will travel into a geosynchronous orbit at 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) to test laser communications for at least two years. The demo is the continuation of other laser technology agency tests in recent years, as NASA looks to put this into operation for eventual use by astronauts.

Perhaps the most famous of these missions took place in 2013, when the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, flying on NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft, broke speed records by sending data from the moon to 600 megabits per second. LADEE spent seven months in lunar orbit studying lunar dust before it intentionally crashed to the surface.

NASA officials noted that the new mission will be much longer than other short-lived successful efforts that reduced broadband speeds, such as the four-month International Space Station Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) experiment in 2014, or a short demonstration based on CubeSat in 2017. called Optical Communications and Sensors Demo (OCSD).

“This new system will not only provide higher data rates, but it will optimize what we call SWAP – or size, weight and power. It will be smaller and in volume, weigh less and consume less power than the current state of the art. “Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said during the conference.

But getting to launch day was by no means an easy journey. First approved in 2011, early plans called for the launch of the laser demonstrator on a commercial communications satellite developed by Space Systems / Loral. But the mission faced strong headwinds in 2018.

That year, the Government Accountability Office warned that the mission had already had to change its design, programming and planned host spacecraft due to “scope changes and funding shortfalls in previous years.”

Illustration of a satellite with optical laser heads for demonstration of the laser communications relay.

Illustration of a satellite with optical laser heads for demonstration of the laser communications relay. (Image credit: NASA Goddard)

“We had a certain set of mission requirements, and we had business partners that could meet those requirements,” said Dave Israel, principal investigator of the experiment at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, during the press conference. .

“Then we ended up adding additional requirements on our payload that would allow for some additional experiments,” Israel continued. “So we couldn’t stay on that commercial provider platform anymore.”

In 2019, a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that a contractor “has experienced technical challenges restoring the existing spacecraft bus to meet the requirements of one of the other non-utility payloads. NASA, “and all of this was expected to drive the launch. until at least August 2020.

Then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic broke out in March 2020, prompting security quarantines and supply chain issues that still persist in the space industry. On top of that, there were new requirements associated with switching to a payload hosted by the US Space Force, NASA officials said during Monday’s press conference. However, they added that no problem caused the long delay.

Artist’s impression of NASA’s laser communications relay demonstration mission communicating data from the International Space Station to Earth. (Image credit: Dave Ryan / NASA)

A perhaps unexpected side effect of the wait was the huge growth in the SpaceX Starlink constellation, which began testing its own inter-satellite laser communications system starting with a batch in January. Starlink terminals are not compatible, NASA officials said at the conference, so there will be no zapping between systems that they can foresee.

But NASA will do more laser work soon. The manned lunar-orbiting Artemis 2 mission, now scheduled for 2024, is expected to test an optical communications system from the Orion spacecraft to send ultra-high-definition video feedback to Earth. (For comparison, the famous 1968 Christmas broadcast of Apollo 8 in lunar orbit used a “slow scan” black-and-white television camera capable of sending out 10 frames per second, NASA says.)

Laser communications will also move further into the solar system, during the first year of the Psyche mission to investigate a metallic asteroid also called Psyche. Following the mission launch in 2022, researchers will have one year to test a deep space optical communications payload. The payload will help uncover potential problems like “targeting extreme distances” from deep space, NASA said.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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