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Laser communications to provide faster connections for Orion

The LEMNOS project will provide laser communications services to NASA’s Orion vehicle, shown in this artist concept.

The LEMNOS project will provide laser communication services to NASA’s Orion vehicle, shown in this artist’s concept. Image Credit: NASA

NASA engineers are continuing to push the limits of laser communication technology by developing a new system called LEMNOS that is to be tested on the second flight of the Orion spacecraft just beyond the Moon. Also referred to as optical communication, laser communications between a spacecraft and the Earth holds the promise of allowing higher data transmission rates than are currently possible.

Laser communications. Apollo 8 Earthrise image.

Apollo 8 Earthrise image. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: Bill Anders / NASA

The Exploration and Space Communications (ESC) projects division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has been tapped to develop LEMNOS, which stands for Laser-Enhanced Mission and Navigation Operational Services. LEMNOS is named for the island Lemnos, which in Greek mythology is the location where Orion regained his sight.

In much the same manner, the LEMNOS technology demonstrator would enable crew members flying on Orion to transmit 4K ultra-high definition video to Earth, enabling scientists and the general public to see images transmitted from space at a resolution not possible with current technology.

Don Cornwell, director of NASA’s Advanced Communication and Navigation division at the Space Communications and Navigation program office, said: “Laser communications will revolutionize data return from destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, enhance outreach opportunities from outer space and improve astronauts’ quality of life on long space missions.

“As we strive to put humans on Mars for the first time, it’s imperative that we develop a communications system to support these activities at the highest level possible.”

Laser communications. LRO Earthrise image.

LRO Earthrise image. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: NASA

Existing technology has allowed for vast improvements between the video transmitted during the Apollo program and present-day missions. An example of this can be seen in the difference in quality between the Apollo 8 Earthrise image (upper left) and a similar image (lower right) taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

The communications system during the Apollo missions allowed for a transmission rate of 51 kilobytes of data per second, whereas LEMNOS is expected to be able to support a data rate of at least 80 megabytes per second. That’s a 1,500 percent increase in data rate over 50 years.

Mark Brumfield, deputy program manager of implementation for ESC, said: “As we started thinking about the possibility of laser communications on Orion, I spoke with the flight controllers at Johnson Space Center who are developing the communications plan for Orion’s deep space missions.

“They were talking about enabling communications capabilities that we take for granted, but that are so foreign in space, from streaming scientific data and video in real time, to allowing astronauts to watch the Super Bowl or keep up with an election.

“Being able to connect with society could have great impacts [on] astronauts’ mental health during the mission. Right now, they wouldn’t be able to make those connections in a meaningful way, but optical communications will give us that capability.”

While the project has just begun at Goddard, eyes are already set on what it will take to fully develop LEMNOS to support a mission to Mars. Laser communications technology requires line-of-sight between the ground and the spacecraft to operate, which would necessitate the construction of a new ground relay station.

Brumfield speculates that NASA could add additional laser communication terminals to support future Orion missions. He says LEMNOS will be an evolutionary change to the way that NASA handles space communications.

 

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Paul is currently a graduate student in Space and Planetary Sciences at the University of Akransas in Fayetteville. He grew up in the Kansas City area and developed an interest in space at a young age at the start of the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions in 2003. He began his studies in aerospace engineering before switching over to geology at Wichita State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in 2013. After working as an environmental geologist for a civil engineering firm, he began his graduate studies in 2016 and is actively working towards a PhD that will focus on the surficial processes of Mars. He also participated in a 2-week simluation at The Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in 2014 and remains involved in analogue mission studies today. Paul has been interested in science outreach and communication over the years which in the past included maintaining a personal blog on space exploration from high school through his undergraduate career and in recent years he has given talks at schools and other organizations over the topics of geology and space. He is excited to bring his experience as a geologist and scientist to the Spaceflight Insider team writing primarily on space science topics.

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