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NASA sent pet photos to the space station using lasers

Using NASA’s first two-way, end-to-end laser relay system, videos and photos of pets were transmitted to and from the International Space Station at a staggering rate of 1.2 gigabits per second – faster than most home internet speeds.

This unique demonstration aimed to showcase the power of laser communications while testing new networking techniques.

NASA’s laser communication

NASA astronauts Randy Bresnik, Christina Koch, and Kjell Lindgren, along with other agency employees, submitted photos and videos of their pets.

These transmissions allowed NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program to highlight the capabilities of laser communications.

“The pet imagery campaign has been rewarding on multiple fronts for the ILLUMA-T, LCRD, and HDTN teams,” noted Kevin Coggins, deputy associate administrator and SCaN program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Not only have they demonstrated how these technologies can play an essential role in enabling NASA’s future science and exploration missions, but it also provided a fun opportunity for the teams to ‘picture’ their pets assisting with this innovative demonstration.”

Inspired by Taters the Cat

This demonstration was inspired by “Taters the Cat,” an orange feline whose video was transmitted 19 million miles over laser links to the DSOC (Deep Space Optical Communications) payload on the Psyche mission.

The pet photo project involved NASA’s ongoing laser communications demonstrations: LCRD, DSOC, and ILLUMA-T.

The images and videos started on a computer at a mission operations center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. From there, NASA routed the data to optical ground stations in California and Hawaii.

The data was modulated onto infrared light signals and sent to NASA’s LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) in geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles above Earth.

LCRD then relayed the data to ILLUMA-T (Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal), currently mounted on the space station.

Evolution from radio to laser

Since the beginning of space exploration, NASA has relied on radio frequency communications to send data to and from space.

Laser communications, or optical communications, use infrared light instead of radio waves. While both travel at the speed of light, infrared light can transfer more data in a single link due to its tighter wavelength.

Overcoming challenges with DTN technology

NASA tested a new networking technique to handle data transmission delays and potential disruptions. They developed Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN), which uses a “store-and-forward” process to manage data.

To enable DTN at higher data rates, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland developed High-Rate Delay Tolerant Networking (HDTN). This technology allows data transfer at up to four times the speed of current DTN technology.

The HDTN implementation aggregates data from various sources, such as scientific instruments on the space station, and prepares it for transmission back to Earth.

For the pet photo and video experiment, the content was routed using DTN protocols as it traveled from Earth to LCRD, then to ILLUMA-T on the space station. Upon arrival, an onboard HDTN payload reassembled the data into files.

Future implications

This optimized DTN technology aims to enhance NASA’s communications services, including improved security through encryption and authentication and network routing of high-definition multimedia.

These capabilities are currently being tested on the space station with ILLUMA-T and LCRD.

As NASA’s Artemis campaign prepares to establish a sustainable presence on and around the Moon, SCaN will continue to develop groundbreaking communications technology to bring the scalability, reliability, and performance of Earth-based internet to space.

NASA’s laser technology

NASA’s laser communication technology represents a significant advancement in space communications. Unlike traditional radio frequency (RF) systems, laser communications use infrared light, which offers a tighter wavelength.

This allows for the transfer of more data at faster speeds. For instance, NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) aims to revolutionize data transmission by offering speeds 10 to 100 times faster than RF systems.

One of the key advantages of laser communication is its ability to transmit large volumes of data over vast distances.

This capability is crucial for future missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, where high-definition video and large scientific datasets need to be sent back to Earth. The technology also supports more secure data transmission, with enhanced encryption and reduced signal interference.

NASA’s ongoing projects, such as the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) and ILLUMA-T, continue to refine and demonstrate these technologies, paving the way for more efficient and reliable space communication networks.


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