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.
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.
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.
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.