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Using invisible lasers in space may sound like science fiction, but it's real.
The upcoming demonstration of NASA's Laser Communications Relay (LCRD) could revolutionize the way the agency communicates with future missions throughout the solar system.
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These lasers could generate more high-definition video and photos from space, according to the agency.
The mission is scheduled to launch as a payload aboard the US Department of Defense Space Test Program Satellite 6 on December 5 from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The launch window will remain open from 4:04 am to 6:04 am Miami time, and the agency will share live coverage of the launch on NASA TV and its website.
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Since 1958, NASA has used radio waves to communicate with its astronauts and space missions.
While radio waves have a proven track record, space missions are becoming more complex and collecting more data than ever before.
Think of infrared lasers as the fiber optic version of high-speed Internet instead of frustratingly slow dial-up Internet.
The laser communications will send data to Earth from an orbit synchronous with the planet's rotation, 35,406 kilometers above the Earth's surface at 1.2 gigabits per second, which is like downloading a full movie in less than a minute.
This will improve data transmission rates 10 to 100 times over radio waves.
Infrared lasers, which are invisible to our eyes, have shorter wavelengths than radio waves, so they can transmit more data at a time.
Using the current radio wave system, it would take nine weeks to send a complete map of Mars, but lasers could do it in nine days.
The LCRD is NASA's first end-to-end laser relay system that will send and receive data from space to two optical ground stations at Table Mountain, California, and Haleakalā, Hawaii.
These stations have telescopes that can receive the light from lasers and translate it into digital data.
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Unlike radio antennas, laser communications receivers can be up to 44 times smaller.
Because the satellite can send and receive data, it is a true two-way system.
The only disruption to these ground-based laser receivers is atmospheric disturbances, such as clouds and turbulence, which can interfere with laser signals traveling through our atmosphere.
The remote locations for the two receivers were chosen with this in mind, as both typically have clear weather conditions at high altitudes.
Once the mission reaches orbit, the team at the operations center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, will activate the LCRD and prepare it to send tests to ground stations.
The mission is expected to spend two years conducting tests and trials before beginning to support space missions, including an optical terminal to be installed on the International Space Station (ISS) in the future.
This would allow data from science experiments on the space station to be sent to the satellite, which will relay it back to Earth.
The demonstration acts as a relay satellite, eliminating the need for future missions to have antennas with a direct line of sight on Earth.
The satellite could help reduce size, weight and power requirements for communications on future spacecraft, although this mission is about the size of a giant mattress.
This means that future missions could be less expensive to launch and have room for more scientific instruments.
Other missions currently in development that could test laser communication capabilities include the Orion Artemis II (O2O) Optical Communications System, which will enable ultra-high definition video transmission between NASA and the Artemis astronauts. let them venture to the moon.
And the Psyche mission, which launches in 2022 and will reach its destination on an asteroid in 2026. The mission will study a metallic asteroid more than 150 million miles away and test its deep-space optical communication laser to send data back to Earth.
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