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Can you hear me now? NASA to test laser communication system

Sharon Gaudin | April 21, 2014
The SpaceX cargo spacecraft will be carrying equipment needed for astronauts on the International Space Station to test optical laser communications to its scheduled launch today.

The SpaceX cargo spacecraft will be carrying equipment needed for astronauts on the International Space Station to test optical laser communications to its scheduled launch today.

The SpaceX Dragon cargo craft's scheduled launch on Monday was scrubbed because of a helium leak in the Falcon 9 rocket that will carry it aloft. The mission is now set to launch 3:25 ET on Friday.

If the Friday launch is postponed, another window opens on Saturday.

Optical laser communications, also dubbed lasercom, is one of the emerging technologies that NASA is focused on trying out.

With lasercom, data is transmitted via laser beams and potentially offers much higher data rates than the space agency is able to achieve with current radio frequency transmissions.

"Optical communications have the potential to be a game-changer," said Mission Manager Matt Abrahamson, in a statement. "It's like upgrading from dial-up to DSL. Our ability to generate data has greatly outpaced our ability to downlink it. Imagine trying to download a movie at home over dial-up. It's essentially the same problem in space, whether we're talking about low-Earth orbit or deep space."

Abrahamson noted that many of the latest deep space missions send data back and forth at 200 to 400 kilobits per second. The new laser test is expected to transmit data at 50 megabits per second.

Since one megabit is equal to 1,024 kilobits, that means the new communications should be up to 256 times faster.

Once the Dragon spacecraft rendezvouses with the space station, the orbiter's robotic arm will remove it from the ship's cargo bay and then attach it to the outside of the station. The laser test is expected to last for at least three months.

A ground telescope will be used to test the new communication tool.

As the space station moves in its orbit around Earth, the ground telescope will track it and transmit a laser beacon carrying a video uplink in 100-second bursts to the orbiting instrument. The tests will help scientists better calculate the ability to point the laser, along with beam acquisition and tracking - all while the space station is traveling at approximately 17,500 miles per hour.

The new laser communications are a key part of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, an arm of the space agency focused on developing technology for future space missions, as well as for life here on Earth.

On Wednesday, Michael Gazarik, NASA's Associate Administrator for Space Technology, laid out the organization's main goals for the next several years.

One is to finish building the Orion spacecraft, which is expected take astronauts into back into space from American soil and on to asteroids, the moon and Mars.

 

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