Our newest communications satellite, named the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M or TDRS-M, launches Aug. 18 aboard an Atlas V rocket from our Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will be the 13th TDRS satellite and will replenish the fleet of satellites supporting the Space Network, which provides nearly continuous global communications services to more than 40 of our missions.
Communicating from space wasn’t always so easy. During our third attempt to land on the moon in 1970, the Apollo 13 crew had to abort their mission when the spacecraft’s oxygen tank suddenly exploded and destroyed much of the essential equipment onboard. Made famous in the movie ‘Apollo 13’ by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, our NASA engineers on the ground talked to the crew and fixed the issue. Back in 1970 our ground crew could only communicate with their ground teams for 15 percent of their orbit – adding yet another challenge to the crew. Thankfully, our Apollo 13 astronauts survived and safely returned to Earth.
Now, our astronauts don’t have to worry about being disconnected from their teams! With the creation of the TDRS program in 1973, space communications coverage increased rapidly from 15 percent coverage to 85 percent coverage. And as we’ve continued to add TDRS spacecraft, coverage zoomed to over 98 percent!
TDRS is a fleet of satellites that beam data from low-Earth-orbiting space missions to scientists on the ground. These data range from cool galaxy images from the Hubble Space Telescope to high-def videos from astronauts on the International Space Station! TDRS is operated by our Space Network, and it is thanks to these hardworking engineers and scientists that we can continuously advance our knowledge about the universe!
What’s up next in space comm? Only the coolest stuff ever! LASER BEAMS. Our scientists are creating ways to communicate space data from missions through lasers, which have the ability to transfer more data per minute than typical radio-frequency systems. Both radio-frequency and laser comm systems send data at the speed of light, but with laser comm’s ability to send more data at a time through infrared waves, we can receive more information and further our knowledge of space.
How are we initiating laser comm? Our Laser Communications Relay Demonstration is launching in 2019! We’re only two short years away from beaming space data through lasers! This laser communications demo is the next step to strengthen this technology, which uses less power and takes up less space on a spacecraft, leaving more power and room for science instruments.
Watch the TDRS launch live online at 8:03 a.m. EDT on Aug. 18: https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive
Join the conversation on Twitter: @NASA_TDRS and @NASALasercomm!
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