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Lasers Bring Internet Speeds to Space

Lasers Bring Internet Speeds to Space

Pew. Pew. Lasers in space!

Iconic movie franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek feature
futuristic laser technologies, but space lasers aren’t limited to the realm of
science fiction. In fact, laser communications technologies are changing the
way missions transmit their data. The Laser
Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) blasts into space this weekend,
demonstrating the unique – and totally awesome – capabilities of laser
communications systems.

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Currently, NASA missions rely on radio frequency to send data
to Earth. While radio has served the agency well since the earliest days of
spaceflight, there are significant benefits to laser systems. Just as the
internet has gone from dial-up to high-speed connections, lasers communications’
higher frequency allows missions to send much more information per second than
radio systems. With laser communications, it would only take nine days to
transmit a complete map of Mars back to Earth, compared to nine weeks with
radio frequency systems.

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LCRD will demonstrate these enhanced capabilities from
22,000 miles above Earth’s surface. And although the mission uses lasers, these
lasers are not visible to the human eye. Once in orbit, the mission will perform
experiments using two telescopes on Earth that will relay data through the spacecraft
from one site to the other over an optical communications link. These
experiments will help NASA and the aerospace community understand the
operational challenges of using lasers to communicate to and from space.

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On Earth, there are
ground stations telescopes that will capture LCRD’s laser signal and send the
data to the mission operations center in New Mexico. The two ground stations
are located on Haleakalā, Hawaii and Table Mountain, California. These picturesque
locations weren’t chosen because they’re beautiful, but rather for their mostly
clear skies. Clouds – and other atmospheric disturbances – can disrupt laser
signals. However, when those locations do get cloudy, we’ve developed corrective
technologies to ensure we receive and successfully decode signals from LCRD.

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This demonstration will help NASA, researchers, and space
companies learn more about potential future
applications for laser communications technologies. In the next few years, NASA
will launch additional laser
missions to the Moon on
Artemis II and to the asteroid belt,
even deeper into space. These missions will give us insight on the use of laser
communications further in space than ever before.

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Ultimately, laser systems will allow us to glean more
information from space. This means more galaxy pics, videos of deep space phenomena,
and live, 4K videos from astronauts living and working in space.

Laser communications = more data in less time = more
discoveries.

If laser communications interests you, check out our Space
Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Internship Project. This program
provides high school, undergrad, graduate, and even Ph.D. candidates with
internship opportunities in space communications areas – like laser comm.

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