What’s Next: The Future of NASA’s Laser Communications

Illustration of ILLUMA-T communicating science and exploration data from the International Space Station to LCRD. (Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Dave Ryan)

By Kendall Murphy
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

GREENBELT, Md. — NASA uses lasers to send information to and from Earth, employing invisible beams to traverse the skies, sending terabytes of data – pictures and videos – to increase our knowledge of the universe. This capability is known as laser, or optical, communications, even though these eye-safe, infrared beams can’t be seen by human eyes.

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CLICK Team Tests Optical Communications Technology Ahead of Small Spacecraft Swarm Demonstration

Graduate students build the test assembly of the CubeSat Laser Infrared CrosslinK, or CLICK, B/C engineering development unit in a clean room at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. (Credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (NASA PR) — Teams from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville are currently testing components of NASA’s CubeSat Laser Infrared CrosslinK (CLICK) B/C demonstration, aiming to validate that the technology can be packaged into a CubeSat and work as expected. CLICK B/C is the second of two sequential missions designed to advance optical communications capabilities for autonomous fleets of CubeSats.

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NRL/NASA Experiment Launched to Study Origins of Solar Energetic Particles

The UltraViolet Spectro-Coronagraph (UVSC) Pathfinder undergoes inspection after the successful completion of its thermal vacuum test at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. The front, gold-colored, aperture shows the multiple external occulters that will block direct light from the solar disk. The occultation allows the faint solar corona to be observed at Lyman-alpha wavelengths. The UVSC instrument sits on a transport cart, which is not part of the flight package. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

By Paul Cage
U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

WASHINGTON  –  A joint-U.S. Naval Research Laboratory/NASA experiment prepares to investigate the origins of Solar Energetic Particles (SEPs) that could affect Navy satellites and harm personnel during future crewed missions to the moon and beyond.

Researchers will use a new instrument, the Ultraviolet Spectro-Coronagraph Pathfinder (UVSC Pathfinder) to try to understand the origins of these particles, how they’re generated close into the sun to provide accurate space weather forecasting when these events happen.

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This Week in Launches: Japanese Tourist, New Shepard, NASA Laser Experiment, X-ray Satellite & More

Soyuz MS-20 crew members Yozo Hirano, Alexander Misurkin and Yusaku Maezawa. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Schedule subject to change without notice.

December 7

Launch Vehicle: Atlas 5 (United Launch Alliance)
Payloads: STP-6 and several rideshares
Launch Window: 4:04-6:04 a.m. EST (0904-1104 UTC)
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla.
Webcast: www.nasa.gov

The U.S. Space Force mission will launch the STPSat-6 satellite and several secondary payloads. STPSat 6 hosts NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration payload and the Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System-3 for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

OUTCOME: Success

December 8

Launch Vehicle: Soyuz-2.1a (Roscosmos)
Payload: Soyuz MS-20
Launch Time: 2:38 a.m. EST (0738 UTC)
Launch Site: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Webcast: www.nasa.gov

Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin will fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant, Yozo Hirano, to the International Space Station on a 12-day mission.

OUTCOME: Success

Launch Vehicle: Electron (Rocket Lab)
Payloads: BlackSky 14 & 15 Earth observation satellites
Launch Time: 6:45 p.m. EST (2345 UTC)
Launch Site: Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand
Webcast: www.rocketlab.com

December 9

Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9 (SpaceX)
Payload: Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer
Launch Window: 1:00-2:30 a.m. EST (0600-0730 UTC)
Launch Site: Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Webcast: www.nasa.gov

Launch Vehicle: New Shepard (Blue Origin)
Payload: New Shepard
Launch Time: TBA
Launch Site: Corn Ranch, Texas
Webcast: www.blueorigin.com

Laura Shepard Churchley will fly aboard a suborbital craft named in honor of her late father, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space 60 years ago and walked on the moon a decade later. She will be joined by: Good Morning America co-host Michael Strahan; Voyager Space chairman and CEO Dylan Taylor; Lance Bess, principal and founder of Bess Ventures and Advisory; Lance’s son Cameron Bess; and Evan Dick, managing member of Dick Holdings. This will be the 19th launch of the New Shepard system.

UPDATE: Postponed to Saturday, Dec. 11.

December 12

Launch Vehicle: Proton (Roscosmos)
Payloads: Express AMU3 & Express AMU7 communications satellites
Launch Time: 7:09 a.m. EST (1209 UTC)
Launch Site: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Webcast: www.roscosmos.com

Space Test Program 3 Launch Update, Now Targeted for Dec. 7

Conceptual image of the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration payload transmitting optical signals. (Credits: NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL SPACE FORCE STATION, Fla. (NASA PR) — The Dec. 6 launch of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 551 rocket carrying the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Space Test Program 3 (STP-3) mission has been scrubbed. The team repaired the ground storage system but will require additional time to verify the sample integrity of the fuel prior to tanking operations.

Launch of the mission – which hosts NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) and the NASA-U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Ultraviolet Spectro-Coronagraph (UVSC) Pathfinder – is now scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 7, at 4:04 a.m. EST.

NASA TV live launch coverage will start approximately 35 minutes before launch on Dec. 7, at 3:30 a.m. EST:

https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive

Exploring Together, NASA and Industry Embrace Laser Communications

Illustration of STPSat-6 with the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) payload communicating data over infrared links. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

By Katherine Schauer
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

GREENBELT, Md. — Our televisions and computer screens display news, movies, and shows in high-definition, allowing viewers a clear and vibrant experience. Fiber optic connections send laser light densely packed with data through cables to bring these experiences to users.

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NASA Sets Live Launch Coverage for Laser Communications Demonstration

Conceptual image of the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration payload transmitting optical signals. (Credits: NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL SPACE FORCE STATION, Fla. (NASA PR) — NASA is taking a step toward the next era of space communications with the launch of its Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) on Sunday, Dec. 5. Live coverage of the launch is scheduled to air on NASA Television, the agency’s website, and the NASA App beginning at 3:30 a.m. EST.

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Upcoming Launches Include Space Tourism Flight

Spaceflight participant Yozo Hiro, Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin and spaceflight participant Yusaku Maezawa. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Dates and times subject to change without notice. And remember: no wagering.

December 1

Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9
Payloads: 53 Starlink broadband satellites
Location: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station
Time: 6:20 p.m. EST (2320 GMT)
Webcast: www.spacex.com

December 1/2

Launch Vehicle: Soyuz ST-B/Fregat-MT
Payloads: Galileo 27 & 28 navigation satellites
Location: Guiana Space Center
Time: 7:31 p.m. EST (0031 GMT on Dec. 2)
Webcast: https://www.youtube.com/c/arianespace

December 5

Launch Vehicle: Atlas V
Payloads: U.S. Space Force LDPE-1 space tug; STPSat-6 technology demonstrator with NASA Laser Communications Relay Demonstration payload
Location: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station
Time: 4:04-6:04 a.m. EST (0904-1104 GMT)
Webcast: http://www.ulalaunch.com

December 8

Launch Vehicle: Soyuz-2.1a
Payload: Soyuz MS-20 crewed vehicle
Location: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazahkstan
Time: 2:38 a.m. EST (07:38 GMT)
Webcast: www.roscosmos.ru

Cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin and space tourists Yusaku Maezawa and Yozo Hirano will lift off on a 12-day mission to the International Space Station.

December 9

Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9
Payload: Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer
Location: Kennedy Space Center
Time: 1:00-2:30 a.m. EST (0600-0730 GMT)
Webcast: www.spacex.com

NASA Invites Public to Share Launch of Laser Communications Demonstration

Conceptual image of the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration payload transmitting optical signals. (Credits: NASA)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — NASA is inviting the public to take part in virtual activities and events ahead of the launch of the agency’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) mission. Launch is scheduled for 4:04 – 6:04 a.m. EST on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

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NASA Laser Communications Satellite to Empower More Data Than Ever Before

Illustration of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program Satellite-6 (STPSat-6) with the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) payload communicating data over infrared links. (Credit: NASA)

By Katherine Schauer
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

GREENBELT, Md. — Launching this summer, NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration  (LCRD) will showcase the dynamic powers of laser communications technologies. With NASA’s ever-increasing human and robotic presence in space, missions can benefit from a new way of “talking” with Earth.

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New Ground Station Brings Laser Communications Closer To Reality

Illustration of the LCRD payload transmitting an optical signal to OGS-2 in Haleakala, Hawaii. (Credit: NASA)

by Matthew D. Peters
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

GREENBELT, Md. — Optical communications, transmitting data using infrared lasers, has the potential to help NASA return more data to Earth than ever. The benefits of this technology to exploration and Earth science missions are huge. In support of a mission to demonstrate this technology, NASA recently completed installing its newest optical ground station in Haleakala, Hawaii.

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NASA’s Next Laser Communications Demo Installed, Integrated on Spacecraft

Northrop Grumman technicians in front of the LCRD payload fully installed and integrated on the Space Test Program Satellite (STPSat-6). (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

GREENBELT, Md. (NASA PR) — On July 16, 2020, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) payload was installed and integrated on the U.S. Department of Defense Space Test Program Satellite 6 (STPSat-6) in preparation for a 2021 launch.

As an experimental payload, LCRD will demonstrate the robust capabilities of laser communications, which can provide significant benefits to missions, including bandwidth increases of 10 to 100 times more than radio frequency systems.

Prior to spacecraft integration, the LCRD payload went through several tests and blanket installations at Northrop Grumman’s integration and test facility in Dulles, Virginia. While LCRD underwent testing, Northrop Grumman technicians also prepared the spacecraft for LCRD’s integration.

Now that the two components have been fully integrated, they will undergo environmental testing and end-to-end compatibility testing to ensure the spacecraft and payload can properly communicate with one another.

LCRD will be NASA’s first two-way optical relay, sending and receiving data from missions in space to mission control on Earth. LCRD is paving the way for future optical communications missions, which could use LCRD to relay their data to the ground.

In 2022, the Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T), hosted on the International Space Station, will be the first LCRD demonstration from low-Earth orbit.

LCRD was built by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, before being shipped to the Northrop Grumman facility in January 2020. LCRD is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, and managed by NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions and the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program office.

GAO: NASA Performance on Major Projects Continues to Deteriorate

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its latest assessment of NASA’s major projects at the end of April. It found that NASA’s performance on its major projects continued to deteriorate on cost and schedule. (Full Report)

Below are key excerpts from the report that provide an overview of where NASA stands on its major projects. Although GAO did not analyze the Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon, the watchdog warned the Trump Administration’s decision to move the landing date up from 2028 to 2024 will put more pressure on the space agency.

“Looking ahead, NASA will continue to face significant cost and schedule risks as it undertakes complex efforts to return to the moon under an aggressive time frame,” the report stated.

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NASA Laser Communications Project Running Behind Schedule, Over Budget

Laser Relay Data Demonstration project (Credit: Universities Space Research Association)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A NASA project to demonstrate advanced optical laser communications in space is running nearly $50 million over budget and 14 months behind schedule, according to a recent assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) project is designed to advance optical communication technology for use on near-Earth and deep space missions.

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