NASA Set To Test New Space Laser Communication Systems

This form of communication will transmit between 10 to 100 times more data than current methods.
Fabienne Lang
The future Laser Communications Relay DemonstrationNASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

To stay on track with ever-increasing data being sent from space to Earth, NASA announced it'll be testing laser communication systems starting this summer. 

Space missions are seeing new technologies and instruments capable of gathering more data than ever before. So in order to send this data back to Earth as quickly, and safely as possible, NASA plans to move away from the current and traditional radio frequency communications and to instead welcome laser communications, also known as optical communications. 

On May 12, NASA announced that its Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will launch this summer to showcase the power of these technologies. 

How laser communications improve space discoveries

Using laser communications will vastly improve the way data is transmitted back to Earth, accelerating the entire process, and transferring between 10 to 100 times more data than current radio frequency systems. To put that into perspective, it currently takes around nine weeks for a map of Mars to be transmitted down to Earth, but with laser communications, this time would be minimized down to nine days.

NASA Set To Test New Space Laser Communication Systems
The difference between radio frequency and laser communication. Source: NASA

Aside from faster communications, the systems would also assist missions as they require less volume, weight, and power. This means there would be more space for scientific instruments to be sent to space, and less power would be drained from the spacecraft.

Ultimately, the goal is to increase the transmission process to enable more discoveries, explains NASA.

"LCRD will demonstrate all of the advantages of using laser systems and allow us to learn how to use them best operationally," said Principal Investigator David Israel at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"With this capability further proven, we can start to implement laser communications on more missions, making it a standardized way to send and receive data."

This year's LCRD mission will start by testing laser communications capabilities and using the mission's ground bases in California and Hawai'i for its simulations. 

Laser communications

This isn't the first mention of using laser communications for faster and better communications systems. For instance, Airbus wants to use lasers to connect people in planes to the internet, SpaceX added lasers to link some of its Starlink internet satellites for better communication, Japan launched a new relay laser satellite as a payload, and early last year, NASA was already working on its laser communications system to connect future Mars astronauts with Earth. 

It's clear to see that using lasers for communication and data transfers will become the new norm in a few years' time, and NASA is paving the way starting this summer.

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