NASA plans laser communications in space

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NASA wants to use lasers to send and receive instructions and data with its spacecraft across the solar system and has included this technology in its future development and funding plans.

In its strategic space technology investment plan (.pdf) released Feb. 11, NASA says it will invest over the next 4 years in optical communication systems that send data and information in the same signals currently used to track the locations of objects like satellites.

This May, NASA plans to launch the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer to orbit the moon and monitor its atmosphere and surface conditions, relying on lasers instead of radio waves to communicate its location and collected information with Earth.

The agency has already had a successful lunar test of communication through laser pulses when it transmitted the Mona Lisa on Jan. 17 from Earth to a NASA satellite orbiting the moon.

The image of the painting was sent nearly 240,000 miles from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. NASA said the image was piggybacked on laser pulses routinely used to track the orbiter and "the team achieved simultaneous laser communication and tracking."

The transmission was verified as a success when the satellite returned the image to the Earth. To properly view this re-sent image, NASA removed transmission errors by using the same kind of error-correction code commonly used in CDs and DVDs, the agency said.

At the time of the test, NASA said near-term plans are use lasers as a backup for radio communications satellites use, but in the distant future optical communication will outpace radio's data speeds.

NASA's investment plan says the agency eventually hopes for a tenfold to a hundredfold increase in communication speeds over radio. The agency says it will make further tests with lunar satellites before applying optical communications to its deep space projects

Clarification Feb. 15, 2013: Commenter "No" is correct that electromagnetic waves travel at the same speed in a vacuum. The increase in communication speeds will come from the greater bandwidth afforded by optical communication systems. As NASA says in its strategic plan, transmission of the entire Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's onboard recorder requires nearly seven-and-a-half-hours, whereas an optical communications system with a data rate of 100 Mbps could transmit the contents in 26 minutes. 

For more:
- download NASA's "Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan" (.pdf)
- read information and watch a video about the Mona Lisa transmission

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