NASA is currently working on a pathfinder relay satellite known as the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which may be the first steps towards high-speed Internet in space.
The LCRD will help coordinate systems using laser communication (also known as optical communication), which in turn will enable faster data transfer between Earth-based technology and spacecraft. If all goes as planned, this system could greatly advance space communications.
“LCRD is the next step in implementing NASA’s vision of using optical communications for both near-Earth and deep space missions,” says Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which leads the LCRD project.
Laser communication starts by encoding data onto a beam of light. This light beam is then transmitted from spacecraft to Earth-based systems. Compared to communications using radio frequencies (RF), laser communications typically display data rates that are 10 to 100 times more efficient.
Laser-based systems have another leg up on their RF counterparts—their potential for a reduced overall size. Since this technology can be smaller, spacecraft communication systems can have lower power, weight, and size necessities, which is important for human space travel.
“LCRD is designed to operate for many years and will allow NASA to learn how to optimally use this disruptive new technology,” says Don Cornwell, director of the Advanced Communication and Navigation division of the Space Communications and Navigation program office at NASA Headquarters. “We are also designing a laser terminal for the International Space Station that will use LCRD to relay data from the station to the ground at gigabit-per-second data rates. We plan to fly this new terminal in 2021, and once tested, we hope that many other Earth-orbiting NASA missions will also fly copies of it to relay their data through LCRD to the ground.”
The LCRD is the successor to the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD). This pathfinder mission was the first of its kind to validate laser communications at a high data rate beyond low-Earth orbit in 2013. The LCRD will expand upon its predecessor, testing its dependability, operational durability, and performance over varying weather conditions.
The LCRD is planned to function between a two- and five-year time frame. As the LCRD orbits in space, the spacecraft will communicate with Earth-based terminals armed with laser modems in California and Hawaii. The relay satellite will include technological additions, such as a space switching unit (similar to a data router), which connects to two identical optical cameras and an RF downlink.
Recently, the LCRD has transitioned into the testing stage, where engineers will examine each component’s functionality after launch conditions. The projected launch date is scheduled for summer 2019.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense