Nasa develops laser space communications

The space agency has funded a project to use lasers to speed up space communications, along with a solar sail and atomic clock demonstration missions

Nasa will develop an optical laser communications system that should speed space communications by up to one hundred times, the US government agency has said.

Laser space communication diagram

Nasa plans to test an optical laser communications system that should speed space communications by up to one hundred times. Photo credit: Nasa

The Laser Communications Relay technology, which Nasa aims to fly on a test mission within four years, will be used in near-earth and deep-space human and robotic missions, Nasa said in a statement on Monday.

"Optical communication will enable rapid return of the voluminous data associated with sending spacecraft and humans to new frontiers," said Nasa chief technologist Bobby Braun in the statement.

Space laser communications promise increased data rates, with decreased mass, size and power burdens for communications, said Nasa.

At present, space communications rely on radio frequency (RF) systems, which limit data transmission rates. For example, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has a limit of 6Mbps, and takes approximately 90 minutes to transmit a single high-resolution image back to Earth. An equivalent mission with an optical communications transmitter could beam images back at 100Mbps, cutting high-resolution image transmission to around five minutes per image, according to Nasa.

Nasa said that for near-Earth communications, lasers could speed communications up from Mbps to Gbps, and for deep-space missions to Mars or Jupiter, from tens to hundreds of Mbps.

Laser communications could also allow missions to use more bandwidth-hungry equipment, said Nasa, such as hyperspectral imagers, which collect images across the range of the electromagnetic spectrum, and synthetic aperture radar, which allows detailed mapping of distant objects.

Launch in 2016

The Laser Communications Relay will be tested on a demonstration mission planned for launch in 2016, and is part of a $175m (£106m) package to develop disruptive space technologies. Atomic clock and solar sail deployments are also planned, and Nasa said that to lower costs all three missions will launch alongside other payloads in commercial rockets.

Each demonstration mission will include test planning, developing flight hardware, launch, ground operations, and post-testing assessment and reporting, with between one and two years of spaceflight operations and data analysis expected before the technology is deployed.

The outcomes of the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration Mission will be used by other US government agencies and the US space technology sector, said Nasa.

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