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Laser communications modem being developed for NASA’s Orion spacecraft

An artist's rendering of NASA’s Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit. Image Credit: NASA.

An artist’s rendering of NASA’s Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit. The spacecraft could have a laser communications system installed for its first crewed flight in the 2020s. Image Credit: NASA.

A new optical modem capable of sending high-definition video at significantly-greater rates than standard radio frequency systems is being developed for NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

Given that radio waves—a form of electromagnetic radiation—propagate in vacuum at the speed of light, communications between spacecraft and ground controllers is much delayed when it comes to distant space missions. While it takes about 2.5 seconds to send data to the Moon and back, the delay grows to several minutes in the case of Mars and even hours on missions to the outer planets.

While laser communications would not reduce the time delay, it could be used to significantly increase the amount of data that can be transferred at once, revolutionizing future space exploration efforts. It can transmit data over long distances at rates up to one hundred times greater than radio frequency systems.

The Herndon, Virginia-based company LGS Innovations is currently developing the necessary hardware to make such high-speed communications available for the upcoming Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2). Scheduled for 2023, the flight is planned to be the first crewed flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, during which astronauts will make a flyby of the Moon. The company is expected to provide an optical modem that will enable broadband data communications to and from the Orion vehicle.

“The Orion optical modem will be central to providing broadband communication services when NASA next sends astronauts to the vicinity of the Moon. We are proud to support the agency’s mission and drive the evolution of photonics technology,” Linda Braun, Senior Vice President of Photonics Solutions at LGS Innovations, told Astrowatch.net.

The modem is part of an advanced optical communications system named Optical to Orion (O2O). According to NASA, O2O is designed to provide duplex communications between the Orion and a ground station at forward rates up to 80 Mbps and return rates up to 20 Mbps.

As a crucial part of the system, the modem will convert the data generated on the Orion spacecraft to an optical signal, which will be beamed from the vicinity of the Moon to a receiver on Earth. The instrument will also be capable of receiving the optical signal from Earth and converting it to data for the spacecraft.

“Future exploration missions, both manned and unmanned, will require high-bandwidth communication links to ground stations on Earth to support advanced scientific instruments, high definition video, and high-resolution imagery,” Braun said. “This is one of three NASA’s optical communications projects that we were selected for to help the space agency meet the ever-increasing requirements for more bandwidth and faster connections.” 

She noted that by increasing data transmission rates by many times over conventional means, optical technology in general will enable a wider range of future scientific inquiry than is currently possible. As such, this technology is being considered also for the International Space Station, exploration of deep space asteroids, as well as for commercial satellite communications applications.

LGS Innovations is expected to deliver the modem in late 2019, in accordance with the EM-2 mission schedule. It will be the third laser payload the company has developed for NASA as the firm is also involved in two other programs: the Deep-Space Optical Communication (DSOC) program and the Integrated LCRD LEO User Modem and Amplifier-Terminal (ILLUMA-T).

“This project cements LGS Innovations’ relationship with NASA as a provider of modems for lasercom-in-space systems,” Braun said.

 

 

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Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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