Lasers Bring Internet Speeds to Space
Pew. Pew. Lasers in space!
Iconic movie franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek feature futuristic laser technologies, but space lasers aren’t limited to the realm of science fiction. In fact, laser communications technologies are changing the way missions transmit their data. The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) blasts into space this weekend, demonstrating the unique – and totally awesome – capabilities of laser communications systems.
Currently, NASA missions rely on radio frequency to send data to Earth. While radio has served the agency well since the earliest days of spaceflight, there are significant benefits to laser systems. Just as the internet has gone from dial-up to high-speed connections, lasers communications’ higher frequency allows missions to send much more information per second than radio systems. With laser communications, it would only take nine days to transmit a complete map of Mars back to Earth, compared to nine weeks with radio frequency systems.
LCRD will demonstrate these enhanced capabilities from 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface. And although the mission uses lasers, these lasers are not visible to the human eye. Once in orbit, the mission will perform experiments using two telescopes on Earth that will relay data through the spacecraft from one site to the other over an optical communications link. These experiments will help NASA and the aerospace community understand the operational challenges of using lasers to communicate to and from space.
On Earth, there are ground stations telescopes that will capture LCRD’s laser signal and send the data to the mission operations center in New Mexico. The two ground stations are located on Haleakalā, Hawaii and Table Mountain, California. These picturesque locations weren’t chosen because they’re beautiful, but rather for their mostly clear skies. Clouds – and other atmospheric disturbances – can disrupt laser signals. However, when those locations do get cloudy, we’ve developed corrective technologies to ensure we receive and successfully decode signals from LCRD.
This demonstration will help NASA, researchers, and space companies learn more about potential future applications for laser communications technologies. In the next few years, NASA will launch additional laser missions to the Moon on Artemis II and to the asteroid belt, even deeper into space. These missions will give us insight on the use of laser communications further in space than ever before.
Ultimately, laser systems will allow us to glean more information from space. This means more galaxy pics, videos of deep space phenomena, and live, 4K videos from astronauts living and working in space.
Laser communications = more data in less time = more discoveries.
If laser communications interests you, check out our Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Internship Project. This program provides high school, undergrad, graduate, and even Ph.D. candidates with internship opportunities in space communications areas – like laser comm.
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Sun Pillar with Upper Tangent Arc : This was not a typical sun pillar. Just after sunrise two weeks ago in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, a photographer, looking out his window, was suddenly awestruck. The astonishment was caused by a sun pillar that fanned out at the top. Sun pillars, singular columns of light going up from the Sun, are themselves rare to see, and are known to be caused by sunlight reflecting from wobbling, hexagon-shaped ice-disks falling through Earth's atmosphere. Separately, upper tangent arcs are known to be caused by sunlight refracting through falling hexagon-shaped ice-tubes. Finding a sun pillar connected to an upper tangent arc is extraordinary, and, initially, took some analysis to figure out what was going on. A leading theory is that this sun pillar was also created, in a complex and unusual way, by falling ice tubes. Few might believe that such a rare phenomenon was seen again if it wasn't for the quick thinking of the photographer -- and the camera on his nearby smartphone. via NASA
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Perseverance: Seven Minutes to Mars : How hard is it to land safely on Mars? So hard that many more attempts have failed than succeeded. The next attempt will be on Thursday. The main problem is that the Martian atmosphere is too thick to ignore -- or it will melt your spacecraft. On the other hand, the atmosphere is too thin to rely on parachutes -- or your spacecraft will crash land. Therefore, as outlined in the featured video, the Perseverance lander will lose much of its high speed by deploying a huge parachute, but then switch to rockets, and finally, assuming everything goes right, culminate with a hovering Sky Crane that will slowly lower the car-sized Perseverance rover to the surface with ropes. It may sound crazy, but the Curiosity rover was placed on Mars using a similar method in 2012. From atmospheric entry to surface touch-down takes about seven minutes, all coordinated by an onboard computer because Mars is too far away for rapid interactive communication. During this time, humans on Earth will simply wait to hear if the landing was successful. Last week, UAE's Hope spacecraft successfully began orbiting Mars, followed a day later by the Chinese Tianwen-1 mission, which will likely schedule a landing of its own rover sometime in the next few months. via NASA
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