NASA to launch final mission to test laser communication in space

NASA’s next laser communications mission will launch early Sunday morning.

The Laser Communication Relay (LCRD) demonstration will take off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket during a scheduled two-hour window of 4:04 am to 6:04 am EST from the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida.

The LCRD, a payload housed on the STPSat-6 spacecraft led by NASA’s Maryland-based Goddard Space Flight Center, is part of the US Space Force’s Space Test Program 3 (STP-3) mission. Space Systems Command.

The mission, according to NASA, will continue the Agency’s exploration of laser communications to support future missions to the Moon and throughout the solar system and is “a giant leap towards achieving operational laser or optical communications.”

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NASA has used radio frequency systems to communicate with astronauts and spacecraft since the dawn of space exploration.

As space missions generate and collect more data, laser communications offer higher data rates than traditional radio frequency systems, allowing more data per transmission and increases in bandwidth 10 to 100 times greater than conventional radio frequency systems. radio frequency.

“Using infrared lasers, the LCRD will send data to Earth from geosynchronous orbit at 1.2 gigabits per second (Gbps). At this speed and distance, you can download a movie in less than a minute. “NASA explained in a November 15 article. .

In addition, optical communications using infrared lasers offers reduced size, weight and power, which means less expensive launch and less consumption of spacecraft batteries.

With the experimental mission running for at least two years, once in orbit about 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, the LCRD will begin by “talking” with optical ground stations in California and Hawaii to test the devices. invisible near infrared lasers.

The sites were chosen for their clear weather conditions and their remote and high altitude locations.

A team of engineers in Las Cruces, NM will begin the activation process by turning on the payload.

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The payload has two optical modules, or telescopes, for receiving and transmitting laser signals.

Until the first LCRD user is launched – the Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T) payload, hosted on the International Space Station (ISS) – test data will be sent via radiofrequency signals from the mission operations center. Test data will include spacecraft health data, tracking, telemetry and command data, as well as sample user data.

The data will be transmitted to and from the satellite for engineers to study and improve the performance of the technology for an operational mission.

The LCRD will also test laser functionality with experiments from NASA, other government agencies, universities, and commercial companies, including a study of atmospheric disturbances on laser signals.

“Space missions will send their data to LCRD, which will then relay it to designated ground stations on Earth,” NASA said.

Later in the mission, the LCRD will receive high-resolution scientific data from the ILLUMA-T payload on the ISS which will be transmitted to a ground station.

Other missions in development will demonstrate and test additional laser communication capabilities, including the CubeSat Terabyte Infrared Delivery (TBIRD) payload, the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O) terminal, and the Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC) payload. of the Psyche mission.

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“All of these missions will help the aerospace community standardize laser communications for the implementation of future missions. With lasers lighting the way, NASA can glean more information than ever before in space,” NASA said. .

LCRD is funded tthrough the NASA Technology Demonstration Mission Program.

Live coverage of the launch is scheduled to air on NASA Television, the agency’s website and the NASA app from 3:30 a.m. EST.

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