NASA has created an interesting method to transmit data across vast distances, such as the ISS to the Earth.  The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) system was due to be launched to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX-3 mission, but the mission was scrubbed due to a helium leak on the Falcon 9 first stage. The next launch opportunity will be Friday, April 18 at 3:25 p.m.  Hopefully the mission will go ahead as NASA is wanting to test this first optical communication experiment on the orbital laboratory.


When scientific instruments are used in space, they require higher communication rates to transmit data back to Earth.  Or they need to support high-data-rate applications, such as high-definition video streams. Optical communications, also referred to as “lasercom”, is a promising technology that uses laser beams to send data. This new technology should support massively higher data rates than what is currently achievable with radio frequency (RF) transmissions.  NASA also sees the advantages in that it operates in a frequency band that is not regulated by the FCC.

Mission Manager Matt Abrahamson said, “Optical communications has the potential to be a game-changer…Right now, many of our deep space missions communicate at 200 to 400 kilobits per second.” Bogdan Oaida, the project’s systems engineer added “It’s like upgrading from dial-up to DSL…Our ability to generate data has greatly outpaced our ability to downlink it. Imagine trying to download a movie at home over dial-up. It’s essentially the same problem in space, whether we’re talking about low-Earth orbit or deep space.”  OPALS will demonstrate up to 50 megabits per second and future deep space optical communication systems will provide over one gigabits per second from the planet Mars.

The system works like this; As the ISS orbits Earth, a ground telescope tracks it and transmits a laser beacon to OPALS. While maintaining a lock on the uplink beacon, the instrument’s flight system will then downlink a modulated laser beam with a formatted video.  Each test will last approximately 100 seconds because the station instrument and ground telescope will maintain line of sight. The system will be used to study pointing and tracking of the tightly focused laser beams and to study the characteristics of optical links through our Earth’s atmosphere. NASA will also use OPALS to teach and train personnel in the use and operation of optical communication systems.

The success of OPALS will provide increased incentive for operational optical communications in future NASA missions. The ISS is an ideal platform for multi-gigabit-per-second optical links. Superfast laser communications between Earth and spacecraft like the ISS would enhance their connection to engineers and scientists on the ground.

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[Image via wikimedia]