Here's how NASA will test space internet with lasers on ISS

ILLUMA-T and LCRD are NASA’s first two-way, end-to-end laser communication system.
Rizwan Choudhury
NASA's ILLUMA-T payload communicating with LCRD over laser signals.
NASA's ILLUMA-T payload communicating with LCRD over laser signals.

Credits: NASA/Dave Ryan 

NASA is ready to test its space internet that uses lasers to send and receive data at gigabit speeds. The space agency will launch a new device called ILLUMA-T to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2023, which will connect with a laser relay satellite called LCRD that was launched in 2021. This will be NASA’s first two-way, end-to-end laser communication system.

In a press release, NASA said that the ILLUMA-T project is overseen by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in collaboration with the International Space Station program division at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, as well as the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Space Internet using lasers

ILLUMA-T is a technology demonstration that aims to show the advantages of laser communications for missions in low Earth orbit, where the ISS orbits. Laser communications use invisible infrared light to transmit information at higher data rates than radio frequency systems, which are currently used by most spacecraft.

This means that missions can send more images and videos back to Earth in less time. Laser systems are also lighter and use less power, which is important for designing spacecraft. ILLUMA-T is about the size of a fridge and will be attached to an external module on the ISS.

Former NASA SCaN program deputy associate administrator Badri Younes stated that laser communications enhance the adaptability of missions and speed up the data transmission process from space. This technology is being incorporated into various demonstrations, from Earth's proximity to lunar and deep space missions.

ILLUMA-T is not the first mission to test laser communications in space, but it brings NASA closer to using this technology for future missions.

Other missions that have tested laser communications include the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery system, which is a small CubeSat in low Earth orbit; the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, which transferred data to and from the Moon in 2014; and the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science, which showed how laser communications can speed up data transfer between Earth and space in 2017.

Here's how NASA will test space internet with lasers on ISS
NASA's Laser Communications Roadmap Demonstrating laser communications capabilities on multiple missions in a variety of space regimes.

How ILLUMA-T and LCRD will work together

LCRD is a laser relay satellite that orbits 22,000 miles (~ 35,400 kilometers) from Earth and beams data between two ground stations in Hawaii and California. It also conducts experiments to improve NASA’s laser capabilities.

Matt Magsamen, the deputy project manager for ILLUMA-T, explained that the initiative aims to transmit detailed data, encompassing images and videos, to LCRD at a speed of 1.2 gigabits per second (Gbps). This information will subsequently be relayed from LCRD to terrestrial stations, serving as a proof of concept for the advantages of laser communication technologies in missions orbiting close to Earth.

Testing laser communications for future missions

Evaluating the potential of laser-based communication systems to achieve enhanced data transmission rates across different conditions will aid the aerospace sector in optimizing this technology for upcoming missions to the Moon, Mars, and deep space.

ILLUMA-T will be launched on SpaceX’s 29th Commercial Resupply Services mission for NASA. After it reaches the ISS, it will be installed on the Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility (JEM-EF), also known as “Kibo,” which means “hope” in Japanese.

The ILLUMA-T team will then test the device and make it ready for its first light, which is when it will transmit its first laser beam to LCRD. The data transmission and laser communication experiments will continue for the duration of the planned mission.

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