(CNN) – Using invisible lasers in space may sound like science fiction, but it’s real.
NASA’s Laser Communications Demonstration (LCRD) could revolutionize the way the agency communicates with future missions throughout the solar system.
According to the agency, these lasers could produce more high-resolution videos and images from space.
The mission began Tuesday at 5:19 a.m. Miami time, as a payload aboard the US Department of Defense Space Test Program’s 6 satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch was rescheduled after a leak was detected in the Rocket-Propelant-1’s ground storage system. This was fixed prior to Tuesday’s launch.
Since 1958, NASA has used radio waves to communicate with astronauts and space missions. While radio waves have a proven track record, space missions are more complex and collecting more data than ever before.
Think of the infrared laser as the fiber-optic version of high-speed internet rather than frustratingly slow dial-up internet. Laser communications will send data back to Earth from a planet-synchronous orbit, 35,406 kilometers above the Earth’s surface at a speed of 1.2 gigabits per second, which is like downloading an entire movie in less than a minute.
This will improve data transmission rates 10 to 100 times over radio waves. Infrared lasers, invisible to our eyes, have shorter wavelengths than radio waves, so they can transmit more data at once.
With the current radio wave system, it would take nine weeks to send a complete map of Mars, but a laser could do it in nine days.
The LCRD is NASA’s first end-to-end laser relay system that will send and receive data from space to two ground optical stations at Table Mountain, California, and Haleakala, Hawaii. These stations contain telescopes that can receive the light from the laser and translate it into digital data.
Unlike radio antennas, laser communication receivers can be up to 44 times smaller. Since the satellite can send and receive data, it is a true two-way system.
The only disturbance in these ground-based laser receivers is atmospheric turbulence, such as clouds and turbulence, which can interfere with laser signals traveling through our atmosphere. The remote locations of the two receivers were chosen with this in mind, as both typically feature clear climatic conditions at high altitudes.
Once the mission is in orbit, the team at the operations center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, will activate the LCRD and prepare it to send the tests to ground stations.
The mission is expected to take two years to conduct tests and experiments before beginning to support space missions, including an optical station that will be installed on the International Space Station (ISS) in the future. This will allow data from scientific experiments on the space station to be sent to the satellite, which will then relay it back to Earth.
The display acts as a relay satellite, eliminating the need for future missions to have line-of-sight antennas directly on the ground. The satellite could help reduce the size, weight, and power requirements for communications on future spacecraft, even though this mission is about the size of a giant order.
This means that launching future missions may be less expensive and have room for more scientific tools.
Other missions currently in development that could test laser communication capabilities include the Orion Artemis II (O2O) optical communications system, which will enable ultra-high-definition video transmission between NASA and astronauts from Artemis Let them venture to the moon.
and the self mission, which launches in 2022 and will reach its destination on an asteroid in 2026. The mission will study a metallic asteroid more than 150 million miles away and test an optical communication laser in deep space to send data back to Earth.