Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) concept art. Courtesy: NASA
You cannot just send a text to an astronaut in outer space with your phone nor send them your “Dog Filter” photo on Snapchat. To communicate in space NASA uses laser-based technology known as Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD). This does not only help to communicate with the astronaut but the speed of sending and receiving messages, pictures, videos and music are much faster then what we use on Earth.
LCRD uses lasers to encode and transmit data at rates 10 to 100 times faster than today's fastest RF radios, using significantly less mass and power. The wavelength of the laser light, in context to magnitude, is much less then radio waves, meaning the energy spread out is not much. For example a typical Ka-Band signal from Mars spreads out so much that when it reaches Earth, the diameter of the energy is larger than Earth's diameter. A typical optical signal, however, will only spread over the equivalent of a small portion of the United States, thus there is less energy wasted. The shorter wavelength also means there is significantly more bandwidth available for an optical signal, while radio systems have to increasingly fight for a very limited bandwidth.
This leap in technology has revolutionized many fields. Such technology has the potential to deliver video and high-resolution measurements from spacecraft over planets across the solar system permitting researchers to make detailed studies of conditions on other worlds the way we now track hurricanes and other climate and environmental changes here on Earth.
Now let us have a look at the team over at NASA which is in-charge of this LCRD project. The LCRD team is led by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Partners include NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and MIT Lincoln Laboratory.
The team is working to fly and validate a reliable, capable and cost-effective optical communications technology directly applicable to the next generation of NASA's space communications network, serving both near-Earth and deep-space mission requirements.
The payload will be flown to orbit on a commercial satellite. Mission operators at ground stations in California and Hawaii will test its invisible, near-infrared lasers, beaming data to and from the satellite as they refine the transmission process, study different encoding techniques and perfect tracking systems. They also will study the effects of clouds and other disruptions on communications.
The investigation will conduct ground technology validation testing in 2017. It will fly as a commercial satellite payload in 2019. This news is sad for all of us who are stuck on Earth. While we are
unable to flawlessly stream an episode of Game of Thrones, astronauts are enjoying high speeds of Internet which allows them to download all 622 episode of Simpsons in minutes. Well, sad life☹