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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NASA Moon Mission Set to Break Record in Navigation Signal Test

Artistic rendering of LuGRE and the GNSS constellations. In reality, the Earth-based GNSS constellations take up less than 10 degrees in the sky, as seen from the Moon. (Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan)

By Danny Baird
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

GREENBELT, Md. — As the Artemis missions journey to the Moon and NASA plans for the long voyage to Mars, new navigation capabilities will be key to science, discovery, and human exploration.

Through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services initiative, Firefly Aerospace of Cedar Park, Texas, will deliver an experimental payload to the Moon’s Mare Crisium basin. NASA’s Lunar GNSS Receiver Experiment (LuGRE) payload will test a powerful new lunar navigation capability using Earth’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals at the Moon for the first time.  GNSS refers to satellite constellations commonly used for position, navigation, and timing services on Earth. GPS — the GNSS constellation operated by the U.S. Space Force — is the one many Americans are familiar with and use on a daily basis.

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CubeSat Set to Demonstrate NASA’s Fastest Laser Link from Space

The completed TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) payload at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory. (Credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory)

By Kendall Murphy
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

GREENBELT, Md. — NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) mission, carrying the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) system, will debut on May 25 as part of SpaceX’s Transporter-5 rideshare launch. TBIRD will showcase the high-data-rate capabilities of laser communications from a CubeSat in low-Earth orbit. At 200 gigabits per second (Gbps), TBIRD will downlink data at the highest optical rate ever achieved by NASA.

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NASA, Industry to Collaborate on Space Communications by 2025

An artist rendering of a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) in orbit. TDRS provides a vital communications link between ground facilities and the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope and a host of Earth science satellites. The agency would decommission TDRS to enable commercial providers to support future near-Earth communication mission requirements. (Credits: NASA)

CLEVELAND (NASA PR) — NASA selected six American satellite communications (SATCOM) providers on April 20 to begin developing and demonstrating near-Earth space communication services that may support future agency missions.

For more than a year, the agency has been evaluating the feasibility of employing commercial SATCOM networks for near-Earth operations as it works to decommission its near-Earth satellite fleet. This approach would allow NASA to focus more time and resources on its deep space exploration and science missions.

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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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Deep Space Atomic Clock Moves Toward Increased Spacecraft Autonomy

NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock has been operating aboard the General Atomics Orbital Test Bed satellite since June 2019. This illustration shows the spacecraft in Earth orbit. (Credits: General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems)

Designed to improve navigation for robotic explorers and the operation of GPS satellites, the technology demonstration reports a significant milestone.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Spacecraft that venture beyond our Moon rely on communication with ground stations on Earth to figure out where they are and where they’re going. NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock is working toward giving those far-flung explorers more autonomy when navigating. In a new paper published today in the journal Nature, the mission reports progress in their work to improve the ability of space-based atomic clocks to measure time consistently over long periods.

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NASA Advancing Global Navigation Satellite System Capabilities

Deployment of Bobcat-1 from the International Space Station. (Credit: Nanoracks)

by Danny Baird
​NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program office

NASA is developing capabilities that will allow missions at high altitudes to take advantage of signals from Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) constellations — like GPS commonly used in the U.S. These signals — used on Earth for navigation and critical timing applications — could provide NASA’s Artemis missions to the Moon with reliable timing and navigation data. NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program is developing the technologies that will support this goal.

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NASA Explores Upper Limits of Global Navigation Systems for Artemis

An Orion spacecraft approaches the lunar Gateway. (Credit: NASA)

By Danny Baird
​NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program office

The Artemis generation of lunar explorers will establish a sustained human presence on the Moon, prospecting for resources, making revolutionary discoveries, and proving technologies key to future deep space exploration.

To support these ambitions, NASA navigation engineers from the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program are developing a navigation architecture that will provide accurate and robust Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) services for the Artemis missions. Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals will be one component of that architecture. GNSS use in high-Earth orbit and in lunar space will improve timing, enable precise and responsive maneuvers, reduce costs, and even allow for autonomous, onboard orbit and trajectory determination.

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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 Extends Deep Space Atomic Clock Mission

A technology demonstration called the Deep Space Atomic Clock could enable far-flung probes to get around using a navigation system similar to the GPS-based system we use on Earth. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — As the time when NASA will begin sending humans back to the Moon draws closer, crewed trips to Mars are an enticing next step. But future space explorers will need new tools when traveling to such distant destinations. The Deep Space Atomic Clock mission is testing a new navigation technology that could be used by both human and robotic explorers making their way around the Red Planet and other deep space destinations.

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