From The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: “What’s Next:: The Future of NASA’s Laser Communications” 

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From The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Kendall Murphy
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Illustration of ILLUMA-T communicating science and exploration data from the International Space Station to LCRD. Credits: Dave Ryan/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA uses lasers to send information to and from Earth, employing invisible beams to traverse the skies, sending terabytes of data – pictures and videos – to increase our knowledge of the universe. This capability is known as laser, or optical, communications, even though these eye-safe, infrared beams can’t be seen by human eyes.

“We are thrilled by the promise laser communications will offer in the coming years,” says Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator and program manager for Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These missions and demonstrations usher in NASA’s new Decade of Light in which NASA will work with other government agencies and the commercial sector to dramatically expand future communications capabilities for space exploration and enable vibrant and robust economic opportunities.”

Laser communications systems provide missions with increased data rates, meaning they can send and receive more information in a single transmission compared to traditional radio waves. Additionally, the systems are lighter, more flexible, and more secure. Laser communications can supplement radio frequency communications, which most NASA missions use today.

Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD)
Illustration of LCRD relaying data from ILLUMA-T on the International Space Station to a ground station on Earth.
Credits: Dave Ryan/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

On Dec. 7, 2021, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) launched into orbit, about 22,000 miles from Earth to test the capabilities of laser communications. LCRD is the agency’s first technology demonstration of a two-way laser relay system. Now that LCRD is in orbit, NASA’s laser communications advancements continue.

LCRD Experimenters Program

In May 2022, NASA certified that LCRD is ready to conduct experiments. These experiments are testing and refining laser systems — the mission’s overall goal. Experiments provided by NASA, other government agencies, academia, and industry are measuring the long-term effects of the atmosphere on laser communications signals; assessing the technology’s applicability for future missions; and testing on-orbit laser relay capabilities.

“We will start receiving some experiment results almost immediately, while others are long-term and will take time for trends to emerge during LCRD’s two-year experiment period,” said Rick Butler, project lead for the LCRD experimenters program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “LCRD will answer the aerospace industry’s questions about laser communications as an operational option for high bandwidth applications.”

“The program is still looking for new experiments, and anyone who is interested should reach out,” said Butler. “We are tapping into the laser communications community and these experiments will show how optical will work for international organizations, industry, and academia.”

NASA is continuing to accept proposals for new experiments to help refine optical technologies, increase knowledge, and identify future applications.

LCRD will even relay data submitted by the public shortly after its launch in the form of New Year’s resolutions shared with NASA social media accounts. These resolutions will be transmitted from a ground station in California and relayed through LCRD to another ground station located in Hawaii as yet another demonstration of LCRD’s capabilities.

TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD)

Illustration of TBIRD downlinking data over lasers links to Optical Ground Station 1 in California.
Credits: Dave Ryan/ NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Recently following LCRD, the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) payload launched on May 25, 2022, as part of the Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) mission, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on SpaceX’s Transporter-5 rideshare mission. TBIRD will showcase 200-gigabit-per-second data downlinks – the highest optical rate ever achieved by NASA.

TBIRD is continuing NASA’s optical communications infusion by demonstrating the benefits lasers communications could have for near-Earth science missions that capture important data and large detailed images. TBIRD is sending back terabytes of data in a single pass, demonstrating the benefits of higher bandwidth, and giving NASA more insight into the capabilities of laser communications on small satellites. TBIRD is the size of a tissue box!

“In the past, we’ve designed our instruments and spacecraft around the constraint of how much data we can get down or back from space to Earth,” said TBIRD Project Manager Beth Keer. “With optical communications, we’re blowing that out of the water as far as the amount of data we can bring back. It is truly a game-changing capability.”

Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T)

Launching in early 2023 in the Dragon trunk of SpaceX’s 27th commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station, the Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T) [header image] will bring laser communications to the orbiting laboratory and empower astronauts living and working there with enhanced data capabilities.

ILLUMA-T will gather information from experiments aboard the station and send the data to LCRD at 1.2 gigabits per second. At this rate, a feature-length movie could be downloaded in under a minute. LCRD will then relay this information down to ground stations in Hawaii or California.

“ILLUMA-T and LCRD will work together to become the first laser system to demonstrate low-Earth orbit to geosynchronous orbit to ground communications links,” said Chetan Sayal, project manager for ILLUMA-T at NASA Goddard.

Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O)

Illustration of NASA’s O2O laser communications terminal sending high-resolution data from the Artemis II mission.
Credits: NASA

The Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O) will bring laser communications to the Moon aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft during the Artemis II mission. O2O will be capable of transmitting high-resolution images and video when astronauts return to the lunar region for the first time in over 50 years. Artemis II will be the first crewed lunar flight to demonstrate laser communications technologies, sending data to Earth with a downlink rate of up to 260 megabits per second.

“By infusing new laser communications technologies into the Artemis missions, we’re empowering our astronauts with more access to data than ever before,” said O2O Project Manager Steve Horowitz. “The higher the data rates, the more information our instruments can send home to Earth, and the more science our lunar explorers can perform.”

NASA’s laser communications endeavors extend into deep space as well. Currently, NASA is working on a future terminal that could test laser communications against extreme distances and challenging pointing constraints.

Whether bringing laser communications to near-Earth missions, the Moon, or deep space, the infusion of optical systems will be integral for future NASA missions. Laser communications’ higher data rates will enable exploration and science missions to send more data back to Earth and discover more about the universe. NASA will be able to use information from images, video, and experiments to explore not just the near-Earth region, but to also prepare for future missions to Mars and beyond.

NASA’s laser communications mission timeline.
Credits: Dave Ryan/NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

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NASA/Goddard Campus

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD is home to the nation’s largest organization of combined scientists, engineers and technologists that build spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study the Earth, the sun, our solar system, and the universe.

Named for American rocketry pioneer Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the center was established in 1959 as NASA’s first space flight complex. Goddard and its several facilities are critical in carrying out NASA’s missions of space exploration and scientific discovery.

GSFC also operates two spaceflight tracking and data acquisition networks (the NASA Deep Space Network and the Near Earth Network); develops and maintains advanced space and Earth science data information systems, and develops satellite systems for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

GSFC manages operations for many NASA and international missions including the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope; the Explorers Program; the Discovery Program; the Earth Observing System; INTEGRAL; MAVEN; OSIRIS-REx; the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory ; the Solar Dynamics Observatory; Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System ; Fermi; and Swift. Past missions managed by GSFC include the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, SMM, COBE, IUE, and ROSAT. Typically, unmanned Earth observation missions and observatories in Earth orbit are managed by GSFC, while unmanned planetary missions are managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Goddard is one of four centers built by NASA since its founding on July 29, 1958. It is NASA’s first, and oldest, space center. Its original charter was to perform five major functions on behalf of NASA: technology development and fabrication; planning; scientific research; technical operations; and project management. The center is organized into several directorates, each charged with one of these key functions.

Until May 1, 1959, NASA’s presence in Greenbelt, MD was known as the Beltsville Space Center. It was then renamed the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), after Robert H. Goddard. Its first 157 employees transferred from the United States Navy’s Project Vanguard missile program, but continued their work at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., while the center was under construction.

Goddard Space Flight Center contributed to Project Mercury, America’s first manned space flight program. The Center assumed a lead role for the project in its early days and managed the first 250 employees involved in the effort, who were stationed at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. However, the size and scope of Project Mercury soon prompted NASA to build a new Manned Spacecraft Center, now the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas. Project Mercury’s personnel and activities were transferred there in 1961.

The Goddard network tracked many early manned and unmanned spacecraft.

Goddard Space Flight Center remained involved in the manned space flight program, providing computer support and radar tracking of flights through a worldwide network of ground stations called the Spacecraft Tracking and Data Acquisition Network (STDN). However, the Center focused primarily on designing unmanned satellites and spacecraft for scientific research missions. Goddard pioneered several fields of spacecraft development, including modular spacecraft design, which reduced costs and made it possible to repair satellites in orbit. Goddard’s Solar Max satellite, launched in 1980, was repaired by astronauts on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, remains in service and continues to grow in capability thanks to its modular design and multiple servicing missions by the Space Shuttle.

Today, the center remains involved in each of NASA’s key programs. Goddard has developed more instruments for planetary exploration than any other organization, among them scientific instruments sent to every planet in the Solar System. The center’s contribution to the Earth Science Enterprise includes several spacecraft in the Earth Observing System fleet as well as EOSDIS, a science data collection, processing, and distribution system. For the manned space flight program, Goddard develops tools for use by astronauts during extra-vehicular activity, and operates the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft designed to study the Moon in preparation for future manned exploration.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs.] NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.