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NASA Boosts Satellite Communications with Lasers

I’m old enough to remember the sound of a dial-up modem whistling away as it connected to the internet. Videos seemed to take forever to load and streaming services were a long way away. It was the adoption of fiber optics that gave the internet a serious boost in speed, making nearly instantaneous communications over long distances possible. Now, NASA is looking to use similar technology to speed up communications with its satellites in space.

The Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) has passed a set of extensive tests and been installed on the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), which will soon be orbiting the moon to gather information about, “the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust.”

Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) components integrated onto the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft. Courtesy of NASA.

“The successful testing and integration of LLCD to LADEE is a major accomplishment,” said Donald Cornwell, LLCD mission manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. “It demonstrates that this new technology is robust and ready for space. This is the first time NASA has had such a communication system pass all its tests and be certified flight ready.”

The LLCD uses an infrared laser similar to the type used to speed up communications on Earth. Data will be sent from space back to our planet in short bursts of light, and be captured by telescopes in New Mexico, California and Spain. Ensuring the data hits its target has required the most work, as the LLCD must accurately transmit information to a position 238,900 miles away while LADEE is in movement.

If NASA decides the LLCD program is a success, this first installation will likely be the first of many to help speed up communications from space. It’s possible a relay system of similar installations could boost communications from deeper in space (from Mars, for example), reducing the delay and increasing the data stream. Always one for redundancy, the LLCD also has a backup radio system in the case of heavy cloud cover the laser is unable to penetrate.

Below you’ll find a video about the LADEE mission.

Source: NASA

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