How NASA’s New Laser Communications Mission Will Work in Space

A “data hunger” in space is fueling the launch of a new laser communications mission, a NASA official told

The laser communications relay demonstration will launch on the United States Space Force’s Space Test Program 3 (STP-3) mission no earlier than December 5 at 4:04 am EST (0904 GMT). You can watch the rocket launch Sunday online courtesy of the United Launch Alliance, which is flying the mission on an Atlas V rocket.

“This will be our first foray into understanding, what does it mean to use lasers to communicate and really connect directly with users on Earth and in space?” Jason Mitchell, Director of SCaN’s Division of Advanced Communications and Navigation Technology at NASA, told in a recent video interview.

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

An artist’s impression of NASA’s laser communications relay demonstration mission. (Image credit: NASA)

LCRD will help NASA learn about possible effects to handle, ranging from atmospheric turbulence to cloud drift, Mitchell noted. Timing is crucial as NASA and its international partners expand their exploration focus over the next several decades.

The recently announced private space stations will only amplify the need for information to flow rapidly to and from Earth. Meanwhile, astronauts on the moon and a sample return mission to Mars could benefit from faster communication speeds 10 to 100 times faster than current radio.

The LCRD and upcoming laser demonstrations a little further from Earth, Mitchell said, will help figure out how to operate lasers from a center like a lunar base. In turn, he said, the “learning experience on the moon [will show] how would we look to operate this on Mars, as well as any other location, actually, in space where you have a central place that you really want to collect a lot of data from. “

LCRD will operate from a geosynchronous orbit at 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) to test laser communications for at least two years. The demo is intended to demonstrate the sustainability of longer space missions after several short and successful attempts to test laser communications in space.

Ensuring the mission survived the stresses of the launch and space radiation for years, rather than a few weeks or months, was the most important thing during the design process, Mitchell said.

“We’ve invested for quite a few years to bring this kind of sci-fi capability to regular operational use. And really, we’ve just made sure that we can package all of that technology in a way that it will survive in space. That has been the big challenge. , and that’s what we’ve focused on. “

More lasers will also be released soon. The Artemis 2 mission in manned lunar orbit by 2024 is expected to test an optical communications system from the Orion spacecraft to send ultra-high-definition video feedback to Earth.

Additionally, the first year of the Psyche mission (targeting a metallic asteroid of the same name) will include a Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) payload test, which will help researchers learn how to precisely direct laser communications. from deep space.

“As the trajectory goes on, we will do all kinds of experiments with the DSOC to try to understand how much data we can get,” Mitchell said of Psyche. Over time, he added, researchers will learn how far the spacecraft will navigate before the data stream slows down, and controllers must switch to “literally counting individual photons with these ultra-sensitive detectors on the ground.”

In addition to the need for speed, NASA says the switch to lasers will solve another growing space problem: frequency crowding. As mega-constellations of satellites increase in number and commercial space launches increase, the radio frequency spectrum is increasingly difficult to come by. It’s getting so difficult that companies often present regulatory challenges related to each other’s spectrum.

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

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