Coming Soon: CubeSats with Frickin’ Laser Beams

CubeSats (Credit: ESA/Medialab)

Laser communications systems have become the next big thing in spacecraft design, promising improved communications. And now NASA is looking to put them on CubeSats.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has issued a request for information (RFI) seeking sources of compact laser transmitters that could be placed on one of these small satellites for a future technology demonstration space flight mission.

“Goddard is developing a CUBESat spacecraft with science mission payload for a multiple unit CUBESat spacecraft that will generate >1 Gbit/day science data at distances up to 0.5 Astronomical Units (AU). Reference 1 gives a notional CUBESat laser communications system concept,” the center said in the RFI.

“The purpose of this RFI is to solicit specific capability information from industry on master- oscillator power-amplifier (MOPA) laser communication transmitter technologies. This will be used for a cost, schedule and technical assessment to assist with preparing for a possible near-future NASA CUBESat spacecraft technology demonstration,” the RFI adds.

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  • Brainbit

    I believe SETI has been looking for radio waves all these years. Perhaps this is why we have never found them?

  • Kapitalist

    Could be a Blitz Gordon world out there in the galaxy. We just haven’t taken a good look yet. Completely missing the party. Radio is sooo “Earth”.

  • windbourne

    This is what I would love to see on the backside of space SATs.
    Seriously, if SX is going to have a network of that many SATs, it would be nice to catch the deep space comm, or perhaps a number of small cameras on.them.

  • MarcVader

    Well you’re wrong. As 1 minute of googling could have told you.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Search_for_extraterrestrial_intelligence#Optical_experiments

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Has technology reached the point that a cubesat on the lunar surface can communicate back to the Earth using a laser?

  • Kapitalist

    Lasers on Earth can measure the distance to the Moon within a centimeter precision, off of reflectors put there by the Apollo missions. So yes, laser communication between Earth and a cube sat sized thing on the Moon is actually happening, since 40+ years. Whether it’s better than radio is another issue.
    https://www.eso.org/public/outreach/eduoff/aol/market/experiments/middle/skills206.html

  • Vladislaw

    Is that technically communication? That is reflecting a laser beam to provide measurement data. The reflector is not communicating and sending data at all.

  • JamesG

    They are sending “data” in the form of the range delay and doppler shift.

    The same advantages/limitations apply for any laser application. Unless you’ve got a big output that lets you “bloom” the beam, any coherent light carrier wave requires precision aiming. Either at a reflector or a receiver sensor. It requires a lot more precision than radio, which is the real reason why it hasn’t been toyed with until now (that and lasing equipment is MUCH cheaper and lighter now) . And the only real reason to even consider it vs. radio/microwave now is that it lets you avoid the PITA that is trying to get FCC approval for a transmitter and freq. assignment.

  • Vladislaw

    It was my understanding that data has to encoded and then that encoded data is sent via a beam of light. Bouncing a laser off a mirror and stop watch the time it takes is not encoding data and sending THROUGH that beam of light.

  • JamesG

    Picky picky. 😛

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    In 2013 a satellite used a laser to communication back from lunar orbit. A relay satellite is now being developed.
    https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/nasa-taking-first-steps-toward-high-speed-space-internet