As science instruments evolve to capture high-definition data like 4K video, missions will need expedited ways to transmit information to Earth. With laser communications, NASA can significantly accelerate the data transfer process and empower more discoveries. Optical, or laser, communications will enable 10 to 100 times more data transmitted back to Earth than current radio frequency systems.
Optical communications systems are ideal for missions because they need less volume, weight, and power. Less mass means more room for science instruments, and less power means less of a drain of spacecraft power systems.
It would take roughly nine weeks to transmit a complete map of Mars back to Earth with current radio frequency systems. With lasers, it would take about nine days.
Infrared light packs data into significantly tighter waves, meaning ground stations can receive more data at once.
Although optical communications systems reduce size, weight, and power requirements, the entire Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) payload is actually the size of a standard king-sized mattress!
With optical communications, NASA can significantly accelerate the data transfer process and empower more discoveries.
Since the beginning of spaceflight in the 1950s, NASA missions have leveraged radio frequency communications to send data to and from space. Optical communications, also known as laser communications, will further empower missions with unprecedented data capabilities.
Graphic representation of the difference in data rates between radio and optical communications.
How it Works
Both radio waves and infrared light are electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths at different points on the electromagnetic spectrum.
The infrared light used for laser communications differs from radio waves because the infrared light packs the data into significantly tighter waves, meaning ground stations can receive more data at once. While laser communications aren’t necessarily faster, more data can be transmitted in one downlink.
NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) is demonstrating NASA's first two-way laser relay communications system, sending and receiving data over invisible infrared lasers from its location in geosynchronous orbit with ground stations in California and Hawaii.