Laser demonstration reveals bright future for space communication

Dec 23, 2013 by Dewayne Washington
Compared to the days of dial-up, today's web-sites load at lightning speed. Just like you need your web-pages load quickly and securely, NASA scientists and engineers want the same quick connectivity with their data-gathering spacecraft. To meet these demands NASA is moving away from their form of dial-up (radio frequency-based communication), to their own version of high-speed Internet; using laser communications. Credit: NASA

(Phys.org) —The completion of the 30-day Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration or LLCD mission has revealed that the possibility of expanding broadband capabilities in space using laser communications is as bright as expected.

Hosted aboard the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer known as LADEE, for its ride to lunar orbit, the LLCD was designed to confirm capabilities from a distance of almost a quarter-of-a-million miles. In addition to demonstrating record-breaking data download and upload speeds to the moon at 622 megabits per second (Mbps) and 20 Mbps, respectively, LLCD also showed that it could operate as well as any NASA radio system. "Throughout our testing we did not see anything that would prevent the operational use of this technology in the immediate future," said Don Cornwell, LLCD mission manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

For example, LLCD demonstrated error-free communications during broad daylight, including operating when the moon was to within three degrees of the sun as seen from Earth. LLCD also demonstrated error-free communications when the moon was low on the horizon, less than 4 degrees, as seen from the ground station, which also demonstrated that wind and atmospheric turbulence did not significantly impact the system. LLCD was even able to communicate through thin clouds, an unexpected bonus.

Operationally, LLCD demonstrated the ability to download data from the LADEE spacecraft itself. "We were able to download LADEE's entire stored science and spacecraft data [1 gigabyte] in less than five minutes, which was only limited to our 40 Mbps connection to that data within LADEE" said Cornwell. Using LADEE's onboard radio system would take several days to complete a download of the same stored data. Additionally, LLCD was to prove the integrity of laser technology to send not only error-free data but also uncorrupted commands and telemetry or monitoring messages to and from the spacecraft over the laser link.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden congratulates the LLCD team on their successful demonstration of laser communications in a video that was relayed via laser to and from the moon. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

LLCD also demonstrated the ability to "hand-off" the laser connection from one ground station to another, just as a cellphone does a hand-off from one cell tower to another. An additional achievement was the ability to operate LLCD without using LADEE's radio at all. "We were able to program LADEE to awaken the LLCD space terminal and have it automatically point and communicate to the ground station at a specific time without radio commands. This demonstrates that this technology could serve as the primary communications system for future NASA missions," said Cornwell.

The ability of LLCD to send and receive high definition video was proven with a message from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, completing the trip to the moon and back with only a few seconds of delay. "Administrator Bolden's message demonstrates NASA's support for advancing this technology for both space and Earth applications," said Cornwell. "It also allowed the LLCD team to showcase the quality and fidelity of our HD video transmissions over our laser communication link to and from the moon."

Cornwell acknowledged that the LLCD mission is another great example of NASA partnerships with outside organizations to advance unproven technologies. He credits the work of Don Boroson and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory (MIT/LL) in Lexington, Mass., for developing and operating both the space and ground laser communications terminals for LLCD. "We could not have made such great strides without the work of our partners at MIT/LL," Cornwell said. "Their years of work and knowledge produced a communications system that far exceeded our expectation."

NASA's follow-on mission for laser communications will be the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LRCD). Also managed at Goddard, LCRD will demonstrate continuous laser relay communication capabilities at over one billion bits per second between two Earth stations using a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. The system also will support communications with Earth-orbiting satellites. More importantly, LCRD will demonstrate this operational capability for as long as five years, thus building more confidence in the reliability of this laser technology.

"We are very encouraged by the results of LLCD," said Badri Younes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) in Washington, which sponsored the mission. "From where I sit, the future looks very bright for laser communications."

So it appears NASA could be making the next paradigm shift in communications in the not too distant future. The same technology that has vastly upgraded our broadband connections on Earth could be expanding communications possibilities for NASA in the not-too-distant future.

Explore further: NASA laser communication system sets record with data transmissions to and from Moon

More information: llcd.gsfc.nasa.gov/

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User comments : 6

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El_Nose
5 / 5 (1) Dec 23, 2013
Too bad this technology will not make it aboard the JWST
shavera
5 / 5 (6) Dec 23, 2013
When people complain about NASA being a "waste" of money, It's things like this that we should slap them with. Our entire knowledge economy orbits around a satellite communication network. Sure we have a lot of fiber optics on the ground as well, but that's partly because the bandwidth through satellites is limited to radio. When we think of the telecom satellites that went up with the radio revolution, this will be the same thing for the fiber optics. Telecom satellites that are so much closer than the moon, using laser communications? Brilliant. (all puns intended)
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Dec 24, 2013
Too bad this technology will not make it aboard the JWST

Since the JWST will be doing long exposures (like all its predecessors) there will be ample time for data transmission. Having a laser uplink wouldn't add anything to the mission.
Also the JWST will be four times as far away as the quarter million miles quoted in the article.

That said: This should be very good for orbital networks (in terms of efficiency and robustness - but also in terms of security)
Czcibor
4 / 5 (2) Dec 26, 2013
Fermi paradox explained? ;)
Returners
5 / 5 (2) Dec 27, 2013
Fermi paradox explained? ;)


This is already known, because Radio degrades somewhere between 1 and 4 light years anyway.

When you think about the long distance space communication problem, it becomes obvious that lasers would be needed to efficiently communicate over interstellar distances.

Of course, you could use a system a relays with a node every half-light-year or so, but that becomes insanely expensive as you'll have to replace them every few decades because they'll run out of power anyway.

This is never going to replace fiber optics nor radio for primary domestic communication, because you can't have a laser pointer on a satellite for every house in the neighborhood.

Will it be a great supplement? Absolutely. Is it as big a deal as private sector satellite (radio/television) and cable, or GPS? No.

It will allow some nodes in some networks to operate more quickly, but it is by no means practical at an individual, end-user level.
gwrede
not rated yet Jan 09, 2014
They sure paid attention to making the video. It had the best lip sync I've seen since analog TV!

But back to topic, this really is good news for solar system exploration in general. Faster communication with less power, would make probes to Jupiter and Saturn moons much more "profitable".

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