NASA Plans Further Laser Communications Tests in Hawaii

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HILO, Hawaii (PISCES PR) — Since its founding in 1958, NASA has solely relied on RF (radio frequency) technology to facilitate communications between spacecrafts in the heavens and bases on Earth. While RF continues to be the mainstay for space communication, rapidly advancing technologies and science instruments, as well as an increasingly crowded RF spectrum are driving the need for an alternative and superior method.

Enter laser-based communication technology. In 2013, NASA successfully proved that lasers could effectively transmit data rates 10-100 times greater than RF through space during its LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) mission to the Moon with the LLCD (Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration). Effectively, laser optical communication proved to be the evolutionary equivalent of the leap from dial-up internet to broadband. This meant that transmissions between Earth and spacecrafts could now send two-way, high-resolution data communications across space, enabling observations with unprecedented detail and accuracy.

The comprehensive satellite images we see monitoring Earth for hurricanes and other weather data are now possible for other bodies in the solar system. But first, NASA will need to build the infrastructure necessary to facilitate this new technology, including several ground stations on Earth. A network of at least three ground stations will be needed at equidistant points around the world to provide continuous communication links to space. Hawai’i’s high-altitude volcanoes provide an ideal site for this endeavor.

Through comprehensive study, NASA has already identified Hawai’i’s Mauna Loa volcano as one of the best sites for atmospheric clarity in the United States, offering unobstructed line-of-sight views year-round for laser transmissions to space. A few years back, the Hawai’i Legislature provided funding for two engineering assessments to determine the feasibility of putting a ground station on Mauna Loa. In mid-2016, the results of these studies, procured overseen by PISCES (a Geotechnical Reconnaissance Report and a Telecommunications Infrastructure Assessment), confirmed that Mauna Loa shows promise as a future site for ground support to facilitate laser-based space communications.

This year, NASA plans to further test laser technology communication with the Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which will transmit data from California to an orbiting satellite, then relay it to a site on Haleakala volcano on the island of Maui. LCRD is considered a critical step toward the next generation of satellite systems going into orbit.

Laser technology will not only increase bandwidth capability, but also reduce power consumption and mass. RF antennae require more energy to power amplifiers due to signal spread. During the Apollo era, NASA flew antennas that were seven feet in diameter to communicate with Earth. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2009, used a considerably smaller 2.5-foot antenna. But laser terminals only need to be as small as four inches in diameter due to their focused signal concentration over long distances. Consequently, spacecrafts can be built lighter and smaller, saving precious fuel and energy. Furthermore, lasers will enable on-demand communication to aid human safety in space by providing telemedicine for astronauts.

The leap to laser communication is inevitable given advancing technologies and the expansion of space exploration – and not just for NASA. The commercial aerospace industry is moving in this direction too. Laser technology can meet the needs of missions to near-Earth space, the solar system, and potentially, interstellar travel. The State of Hawai’i can play a key role in this evolution, providing infrastructure and workforce for some of the first laser-based systems on Earth-technologies that are sure to be critical in the emerging new era of space exploration and scientific study.

To request a copy of the engineering studies conducted on Mauna Loa, please visit: http://www.pacificspacecenter.com/nasa-laser-communication-ground-station/

  • WhoAmI

    Great article with additional information on the subject. A couple things I discovered on NASA’s site was how ground validation tests are being done this year, while a satellite won’t be used until 2019. They will utilize a commercial satellite (no mention of whose satellite or when it will launch).

    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.

  • patb2009

    optical comms is inherently higher bandwidth because of the higher frequency, but the fact you can use a small telescope on the spacecraft and a small scope on the ground, makes it very attractive.