NASA Moonshot Will Test Laser Communications
NASA launches a moon satellite this week that will test ultrafast optical data transmission.
Lunar module: Engineers at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility prepare work on a moon probe that will test a high-bandwidth laser communications system.
A new communications technology slated for launch by NASA this Friday will provide a record-smashing 600 megabits-per-second downloads. The resulting probe will orbit the moon and send communications back to Earth via lasers.
The plan hints at how lasers could give a boost to terrestrial Internet coverage, too. Within a few years, commercial Internet satellite services are expected to use optical connections—instead of today’s radio links—providing far greater bandwidth. A Virginia startup, Laser Light Communications, is in the early stages of designing such a system and hopes to launch a fleet of 12 satellites in four years.
Already, some companies provide short-range through-the-air optical connections for tasks such as connecting campus or office buildings when an obstruction such as a river or road makes laying fiber infeasible. “There are a bunch of technologies that all come together for new applications and improved service, not just one,” says Heinz Willebrand, president and CEO of Lightpointe, a San Diego-based company whose technology provides up to 2.5 gigabits per second for a few hundred meters.
One new technology figuring in NASA’s moon probe: a superconducting nanowire detector, cooled to three kelvins. That gadget, developed at MIT and its Lincoln Laboratory, is designed to detect single photons sent nearly a quarter of a million miles from infrared lasers on an orbiting lunar probe, which is being launched Friday to measure dust in the lunar atmosphere.
The new communications system, dubbed Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, will deliver six times greater download speeds compared to the fastest radio system used for moon communications. It will use telescopes that are just under one meter in diameter to pick up the signal. But it could be reëngineered to provide 2.5 gigabits per second, if the ground telescope designed to detect the signals were enlarged to three meters in diameter, says Don Boroson, the Lincoln Lab researcher who led the project. “This is demonstrating the first optical data transmission for a deep-ish space mission. If you resize it and partly reëngineer it, you could potentially do it to Mars,” he says.
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