To speed up communication between Earth and the International Space Station (ISS), NASA plans to use powerful laser technology that will relay messages between 10 and 100 times faster than broadband does on Earth.
Also known as optical communication, laser communication encodes data into light beams, which are then transmitted from Earth to the ISS and back.
A research project titled the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), scheduled for launch in 2019 will help NASA determine the best ways to use laser communication.
The new technology will enable a data transmission rate of more than one gigabyte per second, making it especially useful for downloading scientific data from space missions and transmitting 3D video from space.
It will also facilitate better high-definition robotic exploration of moons and planets.
Currently, data is transmitted between Earth and space via radio frequency, which uses heavier equipment and requires more power than laser systems.
Once launched, LCRD is expected to function between two and five years.
“LCRD is the next step in implementing NASA’s vision of using optical communications for both near-Earth and deep space missions,” emphasized Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
“This technology has the potential to revolutionize space communications.”
Ground terminals with laser modems will be set up in California and Hawaii to test the new technology. A third terminal will be sent to the ISS in 2021.
LCRD will be placed in a geosynchronous orbit between the two local Earth stations, and engineers will test communications both to and from the satellite as well as its ability to endure the harsh space environment.
On board, the LCRD satellites will be two identical optical terminals connected by a device called a space switching unit. That device will act as a data router and connect to a radio frequency downlink.
Digital data will be translated from radio frequency to laser and back by the modems, which will have to be pointed directly toward sites of reception and transmission.
The faster communication made possible by lasers will be especially useful once human astronauts start traveling on long-term deep space missions.