On board the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts and cosmonauts from many nations are carrying out vital research that will allow humans to live and work in space. For more than 20 years, the ISS has been a unique platform for conducting experiments in microgravity, biology, agriculture and communication. This includes the ISS broadband internet service, which transmits information at a rate of 600 megabits per second (Mbps) – ten times the global average internet speed!
In 2021, NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) has begun integrating a technology demonstrator aboard the ISS that will test optical (laser) communications and data transfer. This system currently consists of a laser communication relay demonstration (LCRD) and will soon be upgraded with the addition of the integrated LCD Low Earth Orbit Amplifier and User Modem Terminal (ILLUMA-T). When completed, this system will be the first bi-directional end-to-end laser relay system, providing the ISS with a gigabit internet connection!
The system relies on infrared light, which allows information to be sent and received at higher data rates, and will show the benefits a laser relay array could have for low-Earth orbit missions. This system will also allow missions beyond LEO to send multiple images and videos to Earth in a single transmission. In addition to delivering higher data rates, laser systems are lighter and consume less power than conventional radio communications. The ILLUMA-T system measures just a few cubic meters and will be launched as part of SpaceX’s 29th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission.
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“Laser communications give missions more flexibility and a quick way to get data from space,” Badri Younes, former deputy associate administrator of NASA’s SCaN program, said in the NASA news release. “We are integrating this technology into near-Earth, Moon and deep-space demonstrations. Upon reaching the ISS, ILLUMA-T will be attached to an external module to conduct the LCRD demonstration. NASA recently concluded a year-long campaign conducting experiments with the LCDR to further refine NASA’s laser capabilities.
These experiments also demonstrated the benefits of laser relay communications in geosynchronous orbit (GSO) by transmitting data between two ground stations: Optical Ground Station -1 (OGS-1) in California and OGS-2 in Haleakal?, Hawaii. Matt Magsamen, ILLUMA-T Deputy Project Manager, said:
Once ILLUMA-T is on the space station, the terminal will send high-resolution data, including images and video to the LCDR at a rate of 1.2 gigabits per second. Then, the data will be sent from the LCDR to ground stations in Hawaii and California. This demonstration will show how laser communications can benefit low-Earth orbit missions.
ILLUMA-T will be installed on external media on the Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility (JEM-EF), also known as Kibo (hope in Japanese). The ILLUMA-T team will then perform preliminary tests and on-orbit checks, followed by a first light test, in which the mission will beam its first beam of laser light through its optical telescope to the LCRD. These tests build on previous experiments, including the 2022 TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) system, which is currently testing laser communications on the tiny CubSat in LEO.
There were also experiments conducted by NASA in 2014 as part of the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission, in which the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD) transferred data between lunar orbit and Earth. The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science in 2017 also demonstrated how laser communications can offer better data transfer between Earth and space than radio signals. Upon reaching first light, experiments will begin and continue for the duration of the mission.
These tests will test the feasibility of laser communications in various scenarios and inform future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Robotic and manned missions are expected to rely on laser communications to complement radio systems. This will enable broadband communications between astronauts and their families at home, which is essential for long-duration missions. It will also allow robotic probes to send greater volumes of data to Earth, greatly increasing the scientific returns of individual missions.
Further reading: NASA
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