Laser demo aims to increase in-space communications bandwidth
Since the dawn of spaceflight, communication transmissions and data relay has generally taken place by way of radio waves. While this process has proven tried and true over the last 50 years, if humans plan to expand the realm of exploration, communication technology must simultaneously move headlong into the future.
Enter the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, or LCRD, the newest showcase of optical communications in space.
LCRD will use near-infrared laser frequencies to enhance communication and information bandwidth between objects in space. According to NASA, laser communications can transmit up to 100 times more data per second than radio frequency systems.
“LCRD will demonstrate all of the advantages of using laser systems and allow us to learn how to use them best operationally,” said Principal Investigator David Israel at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a NASA news release in May 2021. “With this capability further proven, we can start to implement laser communications on more missions, making it a standardized way to send and receive data.”
Expected to launch as a payload aboard the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program Satellite-6, or STPSat-6, (itself part of the Space Test Program-3 mission) as early as Dec. 4, 2021, aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, this testbed is designed to allow scientists to accurately measure the optimized improvements of laser communication over radio waves.
Once the payload’s operations center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, powers the hardware on, LCRD will start its mission in a geosynchronous orbit, testing its signals at ground relay facilities in Table Mountain, California, and Haleakalā, Hawaii.
These locations were chosen due to their generally year-round lack of clouds. Unlike traditional radio waves, laser frequencies cannot penetrate cloud layers when transmitting down to Earth. However, as time goes on, LCRD hopes to demonstrate various cloud-coverage scenarios thus expanding the laser relay envelope.
One of the highlights of the demonstration mission is expected to come with the launch of the Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal, ILLUMA-T, sometime in 2022.
ILLUMA-T will be installed at the International Space Station on the Japanese module’s exposed facility and is expected to relay information via laser communications to the LCRD payload already in orbit.
LCRD will then beam the information to various ground stations on Earth where it will be sent to NASA centers across the country.
This is expected to help demonstrate the future capabilities and viability of laser communications for future human spaceflight missions.
If LCRD is successful, it is expected to be a huge milestone for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions, as it should prove a viable communication option for astronauts traveling to the Moon and beyond into deep space.
Video courtesy of NASA
Having a life-long interest in crewed space flight, Desforges’ passion materialized on a family vacation in 1999 when he was able see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-96. Since then, Desforges has been an enthusiast of space exploration efforts. He lived in Orlando, Florida for a year, during which time he had the opportunity to witness the flights of the historic CRS-4 and EFT-1 missions in person at Cape Canaveral. He earned his Private Pilot Certificate in 2017, holds a degree in Aviation Management, and currently works as an Operations Analyst in the aviation industry in Georgia.