NASA sets a record with laser space communications

The agency's Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration sends data back from lunar orbit at 622 Mbps.

NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) craft has arrived in orbit around the moon and already has set a speed record for transmitting data back to Earth.

LADEE’s Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD), which uses a pulsed laser instead of radio waves, sent data across the 239,000-mile distance at 622 megabits per second, the agency reported.

The month-long test of new communications equipment could form the basis of a new and improved Deep Space Network, which would form the basis of an Internet in space,

"LLCD is the first step on our roadmap toward building the next generation of space communication capability," Badri Younes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation, said in the announcement. "We are encouraged by the results of the demonstration to this point, and we are confident we are on the right path to introduce this new capability into operational service soon."

The Deep Space Network is a series of complexes spaced around the world so that one is always facing deep space. Each complex has a 70-meter antenna and several 34-meter antennas, sizes that give them strong signals and the ability to send and receive high quantities of information. They have been successfully used in many space missions, including the recent robotic missions to Mars. However, space is getting a little crowded, and the radio channels can't overlap, so sometimes satellites and robots have to wait their turn before sending back data from their missions. Even with a robust planet-side network implementing the muscle of Amazon Cloud services, the space network is still a bottleneck.

Lasers, if they can be successful in beaming data to and from Earth, could carry almost unlimited data on their beams, and would be less susceptible to interference. As an example, the lasers would be able to beam high-resolution photos back to Earth in just a few seconds; some images today take more than an hour.

NASA already famously tested laser communications earlier this year, beaming a picture of the Mona Lisa to the moon, and having it arrive more or less intact. With LADEE, the agency is collecting actual mission data in a real-world setting and sending it back via LLCD. So while the Mona Lisa stunt was a great proof of concept, LADEE will show if the technology is practical. We should know for sure by the end of November, but so far, so good.

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