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Speeding Up Communications From Space

When NASA's Psyche probe launches in October on its mission to a metal asteroid 300 million miles from Earth, it will be carrying a new laser communications system that promises to revolutionize deep space missions.

Red laser beam in space

Humanity has made remarkable leaps since the dawn of the Space Age, having visited every planet in our solar system and even sending robotic spacecraft into interstellar space, but it may surprise you to learn that all missions are still hamstrung by radio communications that haven't changed much since the 1960s.

By relying on old-fashioned X-band radio systems, crewed and robotic missions suffer from bandwidths and transmission speeds that are ridiculously small and slow. For example, the data from the New Horizons spacecraft's flyby of Pluto took 16 days to download!

In light of this, NASA says that it has been experimenting with using lasers as a way to not only create much faster direct links between space missions and Earth - at least 100 times quicker than current radio transmissions.

The latest of these experiments is NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) project, which involves installing a near-infrared laser transceiver aboard the Psyche spacecraft. The purpose of the demonstration is not only to see how the system operates over a distance of hundreds of millions of miles, but also explore how to optimize the two ground stations in Southern California and compensate for interfering forces.

"DSOC represents the next phase of NASA’s plans for developing revolutionary improved communications technologies that have the capability to increase data transmissions from space – which is critical for the agency’s future ambitions," said Trudy Kortes, director of the Technology Demonstrations Missions program at NASA. "We are thrilled to have the opportunity to test this technology during Psyche’s flight."


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