Optical communications systems seek to address the limitations of radio frequency communications.
First, optical communications are much higher bandwidth, meaning they can carry more mission data, allowing NASA scientists to send more data to Earth and use instruments designed for the Earth environment throughout our solar system.
Second, optical communications spectrum has not been regulated, so NASA does not need to worry about available allocations. Finally, optical communications packages are much smaller, lighter, and less power-hungry than radio frequency packages.
Optical Communications Potential
Depending on the mission application, an optical communications solution could achieve:
50% savings in mass
Reduced mass enables decreased spacecraft cost and/or increased science through more mass for the instruments
65% savings in power
Reduced power enables increased mission life and/or increased science measurements
Up to 20x increase in data rate
Increased data rates enable increased data collection and reduced mission operations complexity
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) Example
The image taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) represents what one could see from a helicopter ride at 1000 feet above the planet. While this mission is collecting some of the highest resolution images of Mars to date (it will collect 10 to 20 times more data than previous Mars missions), bandwidth is still a problem. At MRO's maximum data rate of 6 megabits per second (Mbps) (the highest of any Mars mission), it takes nearly 7.5 hours to empty its on-board recorder and 1.5 hours to transfer a single image back to Earth that the onboard High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera has taken. In contrast, with an optical communications solution at 100 Mbps, the recorder could be emptied in 26 minutes, and an image could be transferred to the Earth in less than 5 minutes.