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NASA receives space laser message from 140 million miles away

In a remarkable feat, NASA’s deep space communication technology aboard the Psyche spacecraft has shattered records, proving its capabilities in transmitting messages from deep space using lasers.

This impressive achievement paves the way for future spacecraft to utilize optical communications, enabling faster and more complex data transmission.

Psyche’s stellar signal shines bright

The Psyche spacecraft, currently on its journey to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is equipped with the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration developed by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

While the spacecraft’s primary communication system relies on radio frequency, the optical communications demo has showcased its potential as a game-changer in deep space communication.

Revolutionizing deep space communication

On April 8, the optical communications demo successfully transmitted a copy of engineering data from over 140 million miles (226 million kilometers) away, a distance equivalent to 1½ times the distance between Earth and the Sun.

“We downlinked about 10 minutes of duplicated spacecraft data during a pass on April 8. Until then, we’d been sending test and diagnostic data in our downlinks from Psyche,” enthused Meera Srinivasan, the project’s operations lead at JPL.

“This represents a significant milestone for the project by showing how optical communications can interface with a spacecraft’s radio frequency comms system,” she noted.

Record-breaking data transmission rate

The laser communications technology employed in this demo is designed to transmit messages from deep space at rates 10 to 100 times faster than the current state-of-the-art radio frequency systems used by deep space missions.

On December 11, 2023, the experiment achieved a maximum data transmission rate of 267 megabits per second (Mbps) from the flight laser transceiver’s near-infrared downlink laser, comparable to broadband internet download speeds.

This was accomplished when the spacecraft beamed a 15-second ultra-high-definition video to Earth from 19 million miles away (31 million kilometers, or about 80 times the Earth-Moon distance).

Laser message pushes boundaries of space communication

As the spacecraft ventures farther away from Earth, the data transmission rate is expected to decrease. However, during the April 8 test, the spacecraft transmitted test data at a maximum rate of 25 Mbps, far surpassing the project’s goal of proving at least 1 Mbps was possible at that distance.

“After receiving the data from the DSN and Palomar, we verified the optically downlinked data at JPL. It was a small amount of data downlinked over a short time frame, but the fact we’re doing this now has surpassed all of our expectations,” explained Ken Andrews, project flight operations lead at JPL.

The optical communications demo has not only proven its ability to transmit pre-loaded data but has also demonstrated its capability to receive data from the high-power uplink laser at JPL’s Table Mountain facility.

In a recent “turnaround experiment,” the project relayed test data and digital pet photographs to Psyche and back again, covering a round trip of up to 280 million miles (450 million kilometers).

Ryan Rogalin is the project’s receiver electronics lead at JPL. He emphasized the learning experience, stating, “We’ve learned a great deal about how far we can push the system when we do have clear skies, although storms have interrupted operations at both Table Mountain and Palomar on occasion.”

Future looks bright for deep space communication

In summary, the success of NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration aboard the Psyche spacecraft marks a significant step forward in the future of deep space communication.

By enabling higher-data-rate communications of complex scientific information, high-definition imagery, and video, this technology will play a crucial role in supporting humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars.

As the Psyche spacecraft continues its journey through the solar system, the optical communications demo will undoubtedly continue to break records and push the boundaries of what is possible in deep space communication.

This achievement showcases the ingenuity and dedication of the scientists and engineers involved while opening new possibilities for future space exploration and scientific discoveries.


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