There have been a few tests of optical communications before, but nothing like the planned three-year run of the Laser Communications Relay demonstration mission, one of three projects selected this week for trial runs by NASA.
The goal is to adequately demonstrate how the system works so that the technology could be included on the next science satellite or rover.
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In addition to speed, optical communications system require much smaller transmitters, opening the door to all kinds of new missions by nanosatellites.
"We're looking to bridge the gap to the next era of space communications," lead scientist David Israel, with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., told Discovery News. "It's a key way to get us through to the next level of that technology."
The in-space portion of the laser communications system will be included in a satellite owned by Loral Space & Communications of Palo Alto, Calif., which is a partner in the project. The spacecraft is targeted for launch in about four years.
In addition to an existing ground station in California, two more optical communications ground receivers will be built.
Part of the project is to determine how Earth's weather and other factors impact communications and to test work arounds, including storing data aboard a satellite in space and relaying when there is a clear line-of-sight to a ground terminal. Engineers also will practice cutting off a transmission mid-stream and picking it up on another ground station.
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"We have to prove without question that the technology is there, it works and that it can be implemented both in space and on the ground," James Reuther, a manager in NASA's technology development office, told Discovery News.
The laser communications demonstration won the lion's share of about $175 million NASA plans to invest in three technology testbeds. The other two projects are a deep space atomic clock, which can stand in for a celestial GPS navigation system, and a full-size solar sail that can replace a spacecraft’s propulsion system. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among others, is interested in solar sails as way to keep a long-term sentry in space to watch out for solar storms.