NASA to test laser communication system on Psyche mission

It could transmit data up to 100 times faster than existing radio systems and may even enable video streams from Mars.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of NASA's Psyche spacecraft.
An artist's impression of NASA's Psyche spacecraft.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU 

NASA is testing laser technologies that could one day allow it to transmit more complex data in space and even stream video from Mars, a blog post from the space agency reveals.

Specifically, NASA will launch its Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) project this fall to test how lasers could massively increase data transmission speed compared to conventional radio frequency space communications.

The new technology may one day play an important role in crewed missions to Mars and could help probes in deep space to beam a wealth of data back to Earth.

NASA's new laser communications technology

For the upcoming technology demonstration, NASA will fit its DSOC near-infrared laser transceiver on NASA's Psyche spacecraft, which is scheduled to launch this October.

During the first two years of the Psyche spacecraft's journey to its target asteroid, the DSOC near-infrared laser transceiver will communicate with two ground stations in southern California.

This will allow NASA to test powerful laser transmitters and sensitive detectors that could enable high-speed space-based laser communication.

NASA is developing laser communications for space due to its potential to outperform existing radio-based communications systems massively.

Both radio and laser systems use electromagnetic waves to transmit data. Still, near-infrared light in NASA demonstration technology condenses data into much tighter waves, meaning ground stations can receive significantly more data in a fraction of the time.

"DSOC was designed to demonstrate 10 to 100 times the data-return capacity of state-of-the-art radio systems used in space today," said Abi Biswas, DSOC's project technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "High-bandwidth laser communications for near-Earth orbit and Moon-orbiting satellites have been proven, but deep space presents new challenges."

NASA's "revolutionary improved communications technologies"

The Psyche mission is scheduled to liftoff in October 2023. If all goes according to plan, it will arrive at its destination in August 2029. Its target asteroid, Psyche 16, is believed to contain a massive amount of rare metals — some estimations have suggested it may contain $18 quintillion in heavy metals.

"DSOC represents the next phase of NASA's plans for developing revolutionary improved communications technologies that have the capability to increase data transmissions from space — which is critical for the agency's future ambitions," Trudy Kortes, director of the Technology Demonstrations Missions (TDM) program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We are thrilled to have the opportunity to test this technology during Psyche's flight."

The transceiver fitted to the Psyche spacecraft will feature several new technologies, including a new photon-counting camera attached to an 8.6-inch (22-centimeter) grey-silver aperture telescope that can be seen on the side of the spacecraft in the image below.

The transceiver will autonomously lock onto an uplink laser transmitted by the Optical Communication Telescope Laboratory at JPL's Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, California. Once locked on, the transceiver will locate the 200-inch (5.1-meter) Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California. Finally, it will use the near-infrared laser to transmit high-rate data to Palomar.

NASA to test laser communication system on Psyche mission
The Hale Telescope at Caltech's Palomar Observatory.

With more and more missions planned to fly to deep space, NASA aims to improve its communications technology vastly. The new DSOC system is designed to help NASA transmit data faster to Mars and beyond, allowing it to send high-definition images and even video from distant space, completely changing our ability to analyze and experience space from Earth.

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