From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.
On episode 294, a project lead at NASA walks us through a new laser communication system that will be tested on the Artemis II mission to the Moon to drastically increase deep space data rates. This episode was recorded on June 6, 2023.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 294, “The Moon in 4K.” I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, and astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight and more. The Artemis I mission, once again, reignited humanity’s imagination, as Orion was able to share views of the Moon and Earth as it conducted the historic test flight. The imagery we saw from Orion was absolutely fascinating, but it really pushed the limits of Orion and the bandwidth capabilities of the Deep Space Network to deliver it from Orion back to Earth. This is the future, though! We want 4K, we want UHD (Ultra-High Definition)! But with constrained data rates in deep space, how do we get there? Luckily, we have smart people at NASA tackling this problem. The solution to 4K imagery is just as cool as the imagery itself, lasers! So to walk us through how we plan to test a laser communication system called Optical to Orion, or O2O (Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System) on the upcoming Artemis II mission, we have Steve Horowitz, the O2O project manager. Set phasers to UHD, sit back, and enjoy learning about the future of deep space imagery from Steve Horowitz.
Host: Steve Horowitz, my hero. Thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast.
Steve Horowitz: It is my pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Host: [Laughter] I’ll tell you what, in the world of public affairs, you know, I think a lot of the feedback we get and a lot of the things that we’re planning for is how do we make, how do we make Artemis look better to the public? And I know we’ve– there’s these challenges with data rates and, and higher quality streaming when we get these incredible distances like to the Moon. But what you’re working on is so precious to us here in public affairs that I am just, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be talking with you, Steve. It’s got to be just such a fun thing to work on.
Steve Horowitz: It really is. And it’s been an exciting time and exciting time right now as we just brought down, delivered O2O to Kennedy [Space Center] last week, and it really is at a very exciting time.
Host: Oh, yeah. So it’s happening. We’re in the middle of it. This is fantastic. Laser communications, this is sort of what we’re going to be talking about and sort of teeing up and just sort of understanding how we’re able to stream and, and you’re going to give us a sense of the infrastructure that we have in place and how we’re going to do this. But I wonder, what got you to where you are as the O2O project manager? What, what was the career path that led you to end up on this project?
Steve Horowitz: Well, actually, I owe my NASA career to my mom.
Steve Horowitz: When I was at Rutgers College of Engineering, my junior year, I was looking for a summer job, and my mom suggested I applied to an aerospace company that built satellites for NASA, which was not far from where she worked. I took her advice, I got the summer job, and then when I graduated, they hired me full-time. There, I worked on TIROS (Television Infrared Observation Satellite) weather satellites for NASA, for NASA Goddard [Space Flight Center], where I am now. And was, after a few years there was recruited to work at NASA. And it’s been an amazing, amazing career, amazing run. And I really do owe it all to my mom.
Host: Oh, that’s awesome. Of all the different ways, I guess, it sounds like maybe something that you pursued, not necessarily like, you trained or were really seeking to end up in optical communications, but it just seemed like a path that, hey, there’s this opportunity and you just went for it. And then, it sounds like once you went for it, you got really invested in these kinds of technologies and, kind of what led you to end up being O2O project manager was, seems like there was something about where you were working that sort of sold you on continuing to pursue that career path.
Steve Horowitz: Yes. But the way you made that statement, I’m going to back up a little bit. After I came to NASA, and this is many years ago, I worked on a variety of missions at a variety of different jobs. From an engineer, lead engineer building hardware for various spacecraft, from an integration and test manager on the X-Ray Timing Explorer astrophysics mission; as an observatory manager on the Global Precipitation Measurement mission. So in my career at NASA, I’ve worked on many missions from the Earth science missions like TIROS and Global Precipitation Measurement, many heliophysics missions over the years, SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) cluster, CHIPS (Cosmic Hot Interstellar Plasma Spectrometer), astrophysics missions, the Gamma Ray Large Area space antenna. And several future missions like Dragonfly, which will be flying a drone on the Moon of Saturn, Titan, which will be an incredible mission. As well as LISA, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, which will be the first space-based gravitational wave antenna. And a key part, and this little segue way right into the optical, is I worked on the Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions years ago, building hardware, replacement hardware for the Hubble. And that was very interactive with Johnson, Kennedy, the shuttle. And that is not so different in this type of relationship we have with Artemis. So coming back to Artem — coming back to human spaceflight is really a great place to be, an exciting place to be. And optical communication, also known as laser communication or just OpCom or laser com, is a technology that is going to, and already is frankly, revolutionizing how we do communications from space. It has many advantages that I’m sure we’re going to be speaking about. And the evolution of it that got us to being able to do it on Artemis II is a good story.
Host: Yes, and this is exactly why I’m so happy to have you here, is really to tell us that story and why it’s revolutionary, and wanted to start, Steve, by setting some context as to how, you know, these missions, all of these missions that you just listed off, these deep space missions traditionally have used what’s called the Deep Space Network and what you’re talking about, what we’re going to lead up to is this revolutionary design of optical communications and what that means for deep space communications. But let’s first talk about the DSN. What is the DSN- Deep Space Network? How does it work? What are the technologies in place? And– that really– what has– how we’ve run deep space missions up to this point?
Steve Horowitz: The Deep Space Network has ground stations antennas around the world and allows for communication for missions in deep space to communicate to the Earth, get their data down, and have it distributed to the appropriate locations. The challenge with DSN is — as Artemis grows and Artemis becomes even more of a demand for the Deep Space Network time, is that the infrastructure Deep Space Network needs, will be evolving. It’ll be getting bigger and more science missions with higher and higher data rates and Artemis missions. And as we continue the future and as we get ready for Moon– for Mars, the Deep Space Network is being challenged. And so, in the next decade, some changes have to be made and, and optical comm[unication] will be part of that solution.
Host: I see. Yeah.
Steve Horowitz: Optical comm doesn’t go through the Deep Space Network.
Host: Oh, it’s a completely separate thing.
Steve Horowitz: We have our own ground stations, optical ground stations. They could be in the same location. But the Deep Space Network is RF, radio frequency communication, which is the primary method that spacecraft use to communicate to the Earth. Optical communication, which is near infrared wavelengths, uses lasers to communicate to the Earth. So we’re separate of the DSN. And as the technology grows, gets more and more established to be more and more ground stations and more perhaps inter-satellite links that can communicate with optical communications instead it to the ground. So we, optical communications will alleviate a lot of the demand for Deep Space Network and also provide many advantages.
Host: I see. Yeah. And deep, deep space radio frequency, there are some, there are some pluses to why you would want a radio frequency, right? I think, maybe it’s that it covers a wider range? Maybe it’s the wavelength of radio, but traditionally there are pros to that, to using radio frequency for communications as well as cons in the fact that, you don’t get quite as high of data rates.
Steve Horowitz: Correct. And we’re not looking to replace radio frequency, and there’s no need to replace RF communications. What we bring to the table is something different. So on Artemis II, where we’re flying, there’s still radio frequency communication. There’s S-Band, and the S-Band is, maximum data rate is, I think, a little bit under six megabits per second. Same system that Artemis I had. Artemis I was extremely successful using only S-Band. But what we’re bringing to the table with optical comm is the ability to get much more data down faster to be able to stream 4K video, which if you have a 4K television at home, similar concept in terms of resolution, but we’re doing it from the lunar region, and that is a big leap forward. The current primary method for RF for high data rate is Ka-Band. Ka-Band isn’t on Artemis missions. Ka-bands from the Moon could have pretty high data rate. However, as we’re going to be speaking about the system for Ka-Band, RF process has more mass, more size; requires more power. And optical, which is higher data rates, more performance is much lighter, much less power. And, and it is– doesn’t require as much space on the spacecraft typically.
Host: Perfect. And it sounds like when you’re talking about spacecraft, and we talk about this a lot on the podcast, but how precious mass is when you’re thinking about, when you’re thinking about designing a spacecraft and if there’s anything that reduces mass, if there’s anything that reduces space, it could be highly desired. And so, this is already seemingly attractive thing to bring to a deep space mission. But let’s get into the nitty gritty, Steve, on how this works? So when it comes to laser communications, when it comes to this ability of optical communications to a deep space, spacecraft, what– how does, how really does this work? What are the key components here?
Steve Horowitz: OK. So laser communication uses infrared light to send information rather than the traditional radio waves. A key difference is the wavelength and frequency, much higher, much faster, translating to much higher data rates for laser comm, the key thing to point out is the speed, we often talk about, it’s faster with laser comm. That’s often referring to the ability to get more data down quicker because of the — bigger bandwidth, the larger bandwidth. The speed, which it goes from the lunar region to Earth, is the same as RF. They’re both at the speed of light. But — goes fast. It, more data is communicated during the, during the pass on the ground. Due to the higher frequencies used in laser comm, the amount of bandwidth is higher, as I mentioned. And that increase in bandwidth over RF results in the higher data rates. A key difference is that’ll play out to why the, or how it results in so much less power being required for laser comm is the beam width of a laser comm link is much narrower than an RF link. The RF beams being wider, translates to more power, more energy, and a larger ground receiver so that the data can be sent, received, and processed, and used. Laser comm has less divergence– the narrowest beam. And that results in more energy being captured at the ground receiver for optical comm, which is also smaller and the higher data rate. An analogy that explains it a bit is watering a plant in your backyard with a garden hose and the hose has multiple settings. The spray or shower setting, that covers a large range. And let’s say you’re trying to target a plant in your backyard, that spray setting covers a large range and a lot less pressure coming from the water coming out. A lot less of the water hits its target, doesn’t hit the plant. A lot of that water is wasted if you will. With the jet setting, it covers a much smaller range. You’re able to target the plant you’re trying to water with a lot more pressure, think data rate, more pressure, more information, higher data rate, and a much narrower beam. The water is, is focuses directly on the plant. Most of the water hits its target because most of the water hits its target, or with laser comm, because more of the beam hits the antenna, less energy is required. And with Ka, the current high-definition system, from the lunar region, the divergence, the beam that hits the Earth is about 6,000 kilometers, about half the diameter of the Earth is how large the RF signal is that hits the Earth. With laser comm from the lunar region with O2O, it’s six kilometers. 6,000 versus six kilometers. So much more of the information is hitting the antenna. And that has a lot– that results in less energy. The less energy means, results also in less mass and less mass is, as you were saying, there’s not a project manager, scientists, or anybody in the space biz who, if you tell them that you can give them, give some mass back to their project, every one of them would be thrilled.
Host: [laughter] That’s right. Yeah. I think it sounds when you’re describing it, it makes so much sense. Less mass, higher transmission, less energy used. There’s a lot of pluses here. I love the analogy that you said of the garden hose. I know exactly what you’re talking about, the shower or widespread setting versus the jet setting. And I think on that analogy, the thing that comes to mind is, I’m hearing a lot of, you know, plus, plus, plus there. Here’s why optical is so, is so great. I think the — the thing that naturally to me comes to mind as a challenge for optical is accuracy, right? When you’re, if you’re widespread, if you have that widespread setting, you can cover a lot of ground and you don’t necessarily need to aim that hose as accurately. But I know if you’re, if you want to use a jet stream and you, and you want to point at a plant, sometimes you don’t hit it at first. Sometimes it kind of goes off to the side. Is there challenges with orientation, with accuracy? Is there anything that needs to be considered because it doesn’t have such a widespread area to send messages? Are there anything, any kind of concerns or challenges there when it comes to laser communications?
Steve Horowitz: Great question. And it, and you hit the nail on the head. Pointing is very challenging. With the Ka system that covers 6,000 kilometers when it hits the Earth from the lunar region, well, it’s, a lot easier to hit, to hit the antenna. So pointing is a pretty big deal. And on O2O, we developed a, a really impressive system for the pointing. So we have gimbals with the optical module of O2O. The, the telescope has gimbals on it that point to space, that point the optical module toward the Earth, that is a course pointing system, as we call it, not good enough for what we need to do. We also have a fine pointing system using fast-steering mirrors that are able to detect, interpret jitter from the spacecraft, and jitter being this motion induced for whatever reason on the spacecraft to, to detect it and compensate for it, to hold it steady to point at the Earth from the lunar region, pretty far. And making it even more– harder, if you will, is that jitter with human beings on the spacecraft, with the astronauts crew moving about doing things, exercising, giving each other high fives, causes more jitter. And the system in O2O is really a smart system that’s able to compensate even for the jitter caused by the astronauts and be able to hold steady the pointing and implementing the use of the fast-steering mirrors and hold steady the pointing and hit our ground stations.
Host: Awesome. Yeah, I definitely want to go into a lot of the key technologies here too, and to understand just what has to all happen, more so on this pointing thing when it comes to, you know, you just talk about point, pointing being a challenge and how the O2O system sort of compensates for that. Operationally, is there any considerations for optical communications? And what I mean by that is, you know, when I’m thinking about a spacecraft like Orion, you have considerations like pointing where you need to orient Orion a certain way to make sure the gimbals, to make sure that telescope with optical communications is pointing the right way. It’s pointing towards Earth. But you also have to compete against things like solar considerations and the solar arrays and maybe thermal constraints with keeping a single area of Orion facing the sun for X amount of time. Are — how do the operations work with the system you are designing and finding the right moments to say, “hey, OK, we’re going to point towards this for optical communications, but then we have to turn away because, you know, we have thermal constraints, or we have to point the solar arrays a certain way.” Are you dancing with the operations between optical communications and some of the other systems on board Orion?
Steve Horowitz: Sure. Those are considerations that have to be taken into account. And we, most of ours have been accommodated during the design phase, not so much, not only the design of O2O, but where we’re being placed on Orion. And so, where we’re pointing and that Orion flies tail to sun, that we aren’t going to have a lot of those problems operationally, because we, it was accounted for ahead of time. And in some ways, we also lucked out that we don’t have operational constraints that way. Thermo’s always a consideration as well. And if we operate too long in a certain configuration we could, we get warmer and warmer and warmer. And that’s an operational- not a constraint because it was designed and tested and it, and there won’t be any problems, but it’s an operational consideration that we’re, that we’re addressing.
Host: That’s huge, Steve, because what you’re talking about, and I’m thinking about the trajectory of Artemis II. You’re really just swinging around the Moon, if you’re pointing tail to sun for most of it. You know, with a couple considerations about the thermal, which you talk about, you addressed it in the testing, you can have a pretty continuous stream of optical communication through, if I’m not mistaken, most of the Artemis II mission.
Steve Horowitz: We have two ground stations on Artem — on op– the two optical ground stations for O2O.
Steve Horowitz: They are in target, they’re both in the continental United States, and they are in view ten hours a day. So we could operate up to ten hours a day on each of the ten– each of the days of the ten-day mission.
Host: I see. OK. So not so much a matter of orienting Orion the right way, it’s more about the ground station infrastructure and the Earth itself has to be, it has to be having those ground stations pointing towards, you know, Orion and the Moon, in order to talk to it. You don’t have around the globe ground stations for optical quite yet.
Steve Horowitz: Correct. These are dedicated, developed for O2O and there’s two of them. One is in White Sands complex in New Mexico. The other is at the Table Mountain facility, which is operated by the Jet Propulsion Lab[oratory] in California.
Host: OK. White Sands and in California. We’ve, I think, talked a lot about the key technologies for O2O and talking about, you know, sort of how this works, but it sounds like there is this telescopic infrastructure on Orion. It is the laser communications on the spacecraft itself that’s sending the lasers down to Earth. And then you have the ground stations. And you talked about the gimbal assembly to sort of help with the jitters and help maximize the pointing flexibility. Are there other key technologies to what fully encompasses O2O? Or does that capture most of it?
Steve Horowitz: No, so now let’s get into the, a little more of the guts of what an optical communication system is, what laser comm is.
Steve Horowitz: So a laser comm or optical comm terminal comprises of the optical module and optical module on O2O is defined as the optical telescope, the gimbals, the fast-steering mirrors, electronics and such. We also have an optical modem, which converts the electrical signal into an optical signal as, as a modem for distribution. And also returning it that way. We have a computer, a controller for commanding and so forth. We have power, supplies and so and such. The key, the heart is often considered the– the controller is more of a computer, not advanced technology for O2O [inaudible]. The modem is rather impressive. And the optical module is rather impressive. So the key parameters of an optical communication system, are often frequency, the modulation scheme inside the modem, the aperture size of O2O is ten centimeters and the range where it’s going to be pointing. As we talked about optical communication links require high-pointing accuracy. The aperture, how that works is, so when you’re transmitting, energy passes through the optical aperture and forms the narrow beam, the very, in a relative sense, very narrow beam. The larger the aperture, the narrower the beam. And then that creates a higher power density at the receiver for the given range. Now, pointing is important, but that’s once you find each other. A key element of this whole process is having the ground terminal and the space terminal find each other so they can communicate. And with these very narrow beams, that’s a little harder. So the approach is sending a beacon at– which is much more diverse, it spreads out much more, that’s not high data rate. And once the beacon is found, the space terminal on the ground will lock on each other, and then we can implement the higher data rates. And this is scalable. Talk about future deep space. All this is scalable for beyond lunar orbits and, you know, even Mars.
Host: Oh, it’s scalable in terms of, I guess the tech, the technology size, maybe, you know, the telescopic assembly you have on Orion can be scaled up. But then, are you also referring to ground station infrastructure and having just more coverage?
Steve Horowitz: There’s various trades. So if you, the further away you are, you have to make certain you have enough signal to reach the ground. Each mission has its own requirements in terms of data rate transmission. But you can have a larger telescope, you could have more mass as needed, but some missions require less data rate, a lower data rate. And that could often compensate for the need for additional mass to have a larger telescope. But all those trades — are specific to a mission and will result in being able to do that from further distances.
Host: One thing that’s coming to mind, I’m thinking about the way that the, that this optical lens on Orion communicates with a ground station and you talked about, I think you said a six-kilometer spread if I’m quoting you correctly.
Steve Horowitz: Correct.
Host: And so, I’m thinking that’s not very wide and, and the Earth is constantly rotating. So does that mean that, you know, you talked about this, this sort of beacon technology, once you find it, there’s almost this, the gimbal assembly, the telescope assembly on Orion actually tracks the ground station as Earth moves, as Earth rotates. It’s pointing towards those ground stations for that ten hours that you actually have a view of the ground stations. It’s actually like the gimbal assembly is actually moving to make sure it’s got that accuracy.
Steve Horowitz: Correct. And not only is the Earth moving; Orion is moving.
Steve Horowitz: That closed loop feedback is impressive to lock on and stay locked on.
Host: Yeah. That, this is sort of what I was alluding to with that accuracy with these, yeah. We just, you have the Earth moving, you have Orion moving, there’s a lot at — there’s a lot in place. And so…
Steve Horowitz: You know, but, Gary, can I also mention, you mentioned some of the challenges.
Steve Horowitz: There was a challenge that we didn’t get to — that’s not a space terminal challenge, challenge, but more of a ground terminal challenge, or at least a system challenge, is that weather, clouds affect the optical beam.
Host: Oh, interesting.
Steve Horowitz: And that has to be accounted for. So O2O has two optical ground stations in locations that are weathered decorrelated. The likelihood, if one area has a, a cloudy — clouds, it’s very unlikely that the other would have clouds as well that would impact the transmission. Also, the ground stations are often built the top of mountains as there’s minimal dust and less atmospheric turbulence at, at the top of a mountain. And as many people have experienced hiking or otherwise, it’s quite common to have a nice sunny day at the top of a mountain where midpoint down and below its, it’s cloudy or rainy, rainy. So that’s one of the methods we’re able to get around that concern about clouds and the atmospheric disturbances that would disrupt the laser signal. And depending on the mission and its requirements for data and how much data, how much latency, how real-time versus how much storage the data can — that can be allowed, there’s, you could wait on certain missions to send it down another time. But in the future, with expected advances in inter-satellite networking and as well as, the potential development of an extensive network of laser comm, OpCom ground stations, there’s going to be even more solutions to route data around the weather. And, and that would, and so for O2O, that’s how we’re doing it. We have two ground stations that are weather decorrelated. Other missions based on their needs have adaptive optics. And adaptive optics on the ground terminal reduces the effects of atmospheric turbulence on the data. So adaptive optics use a sensor to measure the distortion from the clouds to the electromagnetic signal coming from the spacecraft. The distortion is measured, and it gets sent through a deformable mirror that changes its shape to take out the aberration induced by the atmosphere. And the result is a nice pristine signal. O2O doesn’t require that because of our modulation approach of being post-position modulation. Other missions, implement adaptive optics quite regularly. So, it’s another way to address those challenges.
Host: That’s awesome. And that solution is so inventive too, to deal with weather. But it sounds like you guys have an understanding of what the requirements are specifically for Artemis II and what you’ll need, and have, you know, have these different ground stations in place in order to accommodate that. O2O, I think, is something that, you know, you guys have been working on it for a long time to have this sort of capability and there are forward paths to see what this is going to be. But this O2O, is this, is it fair to say this is, this is a — Artemis II at least, is going to be a key, not only is this capability being put in place so that we can actually use it, but in and of itself, this is a technology demonstration for what deep space communications can be in the future?
Steve Horowitz: Well, that’s a good question because we are demonstrating something, but we’re not demonstrating the ability to do laser comm from the lunar region. Laser comm from the lunar region was demonstrated in 2013 on a mission called the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration, LLCD. And that was on a science mission called LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) that went to the Moon. And the laser, lunar laser communications demonstration consisted of a space terminal on the LADEE spacecraft and three ground terminals on the Earth. And they demonstrated it was possible to transfer high data rate; 622 megabits per second of data from the Moon with a space terminal that weighs less, uses less power, and occupies less space than a comparable system. Now, what an O2O is demonstrating is not the ability to do laser comm from the Moon, but to demonstrate operational utility of a laser comm system on a lunar human crewed mission. And that is a big deal. So LLCD was almost like separate of the spacecraft of the LADEE mission. It didn’t get involved with LADEE data, it sent its own data to demonstrate the, how laser comm could be done. And it was extremely successful. But O2O is integrated, intertwined with Artemis II, with Orion data, and we’ll be demonstrating that. So what is operational utility? That’s where we really get into some of the real benefits of O2O. We’re not just demonstrating — LLCD demonstrated, you can send a lot of data at these high rates from the Moon on an OpCom system. But we’re, as I mentioned, intertwined with the, with the architecture for the communication architecture on Artemis II. So Artemis II brings a lot more video uploads, downloads, file transfers, video conferencing. The life support system increases the amount of data that is being generated on Artemis II versus even Artemis I. And on the S-Band system alone, there’s a lot of, there’s certain limitations about how much data can get down. So on day one of Artemis II, we expect about 250 gigabits of data. And you know, that’s quite a bit? And about 300 gigabits of data totaled by the end of the mission. With S-Band alone, Orion is limited to downloading approximately seven gigabits of data per day. And a 10-day mission, seven gigabits per data, that’s 70 gigabits out of 300. That means a lot. The far majority of data is still on board for analysis on the ground after the mission. And Artemis I, that worked fine. And, but what we’re bringing to the table is the ability to bring down so much more of that data to the Earth during the mission for scientists and engineers to be able to look at it, analyze it, and so forth. To give you a sense of how, of how fast we’re able to get the data down, with just one hour of optical comm at our nominal data rate of 80 megabits per second, Orion could downlink approximately 36 gigabits of data per day. That’s six times more than the S-Band example. All the data would be downloaded before the end of the mission. At our highest data rate of 270– I’m sorry, 260 megabits per second, Orion could download in the one hour per day; 117 gigabits. And that’s almost 20-time increase. All the data could be downloaded on the Earth by during day four. And if we had two one-hour sessions, well, now we’re in day three. And that is an amazing increase and practical sense of the capability of, of O2O.
Host: Yeah. Real-time, real-time data. All the data you could possibly want on board Orion as fast as you could possibly get it. That’s incredible. And then on top of that, you know, now you’re talking about expanding capabilities too, that not just, not just receiving data, but being able to push more through because of the higher bandwidth like 4K. And that, I know that’s something for us on, on the public affairs side is highly sought after, we can get crystal clear, beautiful images of humans in deep space, more and higher streaming capabilities than we’ve ever had possible before.
Steve Horowitz: That is the capability we’re enabling. And for anyone who’s had a 4K TV, and many people have them now, but not as many programs, all the old programs aren’t in 4K. So if you have a great TV, you often don’t even see the 4K, but when you do, it is really wow technology. And with my 4K TV, especially the Artemis launch, which was Artemis I launch, which was live, that was 4K, and that was fantastic. And I can’t wait for seeing how the astronauts, how the Johnson Space Center, how the whole Artemis program is going to use the capability of optical comm of the 4K being sent to Earth.
Host: Yeah. We’re talking about it right now. We’re trying to take full advantage of this capability that you guys have worked so hard on and prepared for. And that’s really where I want to go next is, you know…
Steve Horowitz: It really is a giant leap in communication technology to having optical from the Moon at these rates, and it’s going to be applicable. It’s going to be there for NASA’s journey to the Moon and beyond.
Host: Yes. And you guys have worked really hard to get us there, right? And so that’s where I wanted to go to next was, O2O, you know, we talked about what are the different components of O2O, and you actually alluded to in the very beginning of our conversation, Steve, you alluded to the fact that, it’s, that your hardware is already at Kennedy. And so, what are the, what process, what is the timeline here of O2O in terms of the development of the technology, and the testing of the technology to make sure that we are ready for Artemis II?
Steve Horowitz: Sure. So prior to shipping it from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lincoln Laboratory, who’s our partner in this, and was our partner on LLCD and several other missions in developing optical communication terminals for space. Prior to shipping it to Kennedy, it went through an extensive set of tests. Not, some of which, not different from a typical space development program of environmental testing, vibration testing, thermal vacuum testing, and so forth. But being exercising a variety of different methods, different capabilities to see its capabilities, it’s new, to make certain one that met well, the requirements. But also, if we stressed it, if we put this at one end and, and challenge it in another, how would it work? And it did great. It did great. And it was thrilling to get the phone call that it was on the truck being shipped to Kennedy last week. And it arrived — it arrived unharmed, if you will. And, but immediately, we, the first thing we do is take it out of the boxes and make sure nothing was damaged and test, nothing was damaged in shipment. And we tested it on the bench. And so that testing is complete. We know it wasn’t injured during shipment. And we got there a little bit early and we’re waiting for Orion to integrate us. And that’s planned for the end of the month, maybe next month, but we will be integrated onto Orion, and then we’ll start doing some tests to run the data through the system on Artemis II. On Artemis, where we live, if you will, on the spacecraft is the crew module adapter, which is between the crew module and the European service module. And so, our hardware will be put there for the integration, and we’ll do our testing. And then after that, you know, we’re there with Orion, as Orion continues through its test program, getting ready for launch. But that’s just one element of the testing program to make certain everything’s going to work. There are several mission readiness tests, as we call them. We have five of them, and they can culminate in kind of the proof is in the pudding test of pulling together the ground terminals, the ground optical terminals, which are– have their own test programs so forth. As well as, running data from Orion to O2O to the ground to demonstrate all these different scenarios that it works with Orion, not just, you know, we already know it works at the lab at MIT Lincoln Laboratories, but we’ll be demonstrating on these mission readiness tests that works with Orion. And as the space business as such, we did a lot of preparing for those tests while the space terminal was still at MIT, Lincoln Laboratory where we developed the planning and the procedures for the mission readiness test and dry ran them multiple times to make certain everything is flushed out as best as possible. That we, that we corrected everything we needed to do and test planning, so that when we do the MRTs (Mission Readiness Test) on with Orion, they’re going to go as successfully as possible and we’re going to learn from them, of course. And we’ll take those lessons and include into our operational planning.
Host: Yeah. All of this sort of leading to a high-level of confidence that when you start up for Artemis II in-flight and you start those first, you know, booting the system in space and testing that out, that you have the highest-level confidence based on all these preparations that this thing is going to work when you’re in space. But I’m sure you have that, right? As soon as, as soon as Artemis II is in space, likely one of the first steps for you and your team is to boot the system on and to test out the communications and make sure it’s operating functionally before you start getting into this more of an operational mode where you’re going to be sending, you know, high, high data rates down, back down to Earth. You have that– that’s probably one of the first steps on Artemis II.
Steve Horowitz: Correct. We do our checkout starting on day one…
Host: Day one.
Steve Horowitz:…before, before Orion heads off to the Moon. So we start on day one, maybe finished on day two, and then, we’re ready to go. And getting– and ready to go with the operation really is a team effort, not just of Goddard Space Flight Center, where I work, and MIT Lincoln Laboratories, but it’s– there’s five major systems elements, in a sense. There’s the Orion spacecraft element, and then there’s the space terminal. Space terminal lives on Orion. Orion communicates to the Mission Control Center directly through S-Band like on Artemis I. The Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center is also where we have our laser comm space terminal console, a Johnson person there who is operating for us in terms of communicating with Orion for O2O. The other side though is the data from O2O gets sent directly to the White Sands or Table Mountain facility in California. It gets sent through the, what we call the ground data element, which then, we’ll send it to the MCC, the Mission Control Center at Johnson. And through this method, that’s how the data is just data from end, from a mission, where it can be used almost seamlessly from the, by the users. In a sense of where O2O, where optical communication is going as being part of Artemis or future missions in science and human spaceflight. The, you know, the idea of like with your cell phone, when you turn it on, you really don’t care how your call went through to the person you’re calling, which tower it went to, or how it got there and so forth. Or whether the person is on the same plan as yours. You just care that it’s going to get there. And that’s where we’re heading, where this is less of a demonstration. We’re not demonstrating OpCom anymore, we’re using it. And all the organizations are, you know, everyone — we’re to get all the data down with those five elements of the spacecraft of the space terminal. The ground system and the MCC people. Everybody is using the same sheet of music, but everyone has their own instrument to play. And we’ve been practicing and training, not just by ourselves, but with our partners at the — the other parts of the Orion and Artemis program.
Host: Yeah. And it’s, what, what you’re alluding to, Steve is, is huge because, you know, everything that you’re preparing for to demonstrate this capability for human spaceflight missions, I think you’re saying it very clearly is that the intention here is to have this be a part of future missions. It sounds like a really attractive thing to engineers, to mission controllers, to everybody to have data so fast. To us in public affairs to have high data rates and, and high-definition video, and audio from future Artemis missions, the capability to be able to stream, you know, people walking on the Moon in 4K. I mean, that’s something that I think we ultimately, with this demonstration, ultimately is something we all want to build towards, is a future where optical communications is very much integrated in deep space missions.
Steve Horowitz: Yeah. And it will also in addition to the data communication, whether it’s science or human space program, with the astronauts having these capabilities improves the quality of life on these long space missions. And as we strive to put humans on Mars, it’s imperative that we have a communication system that could support the quality of life the astronauts are experiencing. You know, one way of saying it, is we’re enabling communication capabilities on the ground that they could watch the Super Bowl perhaps, and we’re talking long-term planning from far away. They, it, where they could be part of certain activities on Earth that weren’t available to astronauts in the past. And, you know, one of the things I often think about is how FaceTime revolutionized for me, my experience when I go on business trips, I feel less alone. I call up my kids and have video conferences, video conversations with my kids, Alex, and Sophia, and that’s where this is going. This is what we’re going to be able to give to future astronauts that perhaps they’ll be able to do the same and virtually tuck in their kids at night and space will feel much closer to home.
Host: Steve, I think, you know, as, as, as much as you’ve brought to the table today in terms of talking about the systems and the engineering behind this capability, I think, it’s just as important what’s coming through from you is your passion for this project and what it means, you know? Being able to, that human connection is so important for deep space missions. You are at the infancy here of something greater on how future astronauts on Mars can talk to their children. And, you know, it’s all being worked right now as part of Artemis that leads us to that future. And it’s got to feel good, Steve to be a part of something so grand.
Steve Horowitz: Thank you. Thank you. It really does feel good. The team here at Goddard, MIT, Johnson, Kennedy have been amazing. And it’s great to work with such amazing people.
Host: Yeah. I have a lot of passionate people, too. Steve Horowitz, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast. I was so looking forward to this. And Steve, you did not disappoint. It was awesome. So, so informative on what capabilities are going to be shown on Artemis II that leads us to what human spaceflight, human deep spaceflight is going to be in the future. It’s absolutely incredible. So I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today. Thank you so much.
Steve Horowitz: Thank you. My pleasure.
Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around today. I had so much fun talking with Steve Horowitz about laser communications, about O2O. Such an exciting project and a lot of capabilities that are going to impact how we think about deep space communications and deep space missions from now on. It’s very exciting; all happening on Artemis II. Make sure to check out NASA.gov for the latest and the latest, greatest updates on O2O as well as Artemis II. You can also check out many of our NASA podcasts we have across the whole agency at NASA.gov/podcasts. You can find us there and listen to any of our episodes in no particular order. If you do want to talk to us or shoot us a suggestion, we are on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just use the hashtag #AskNASA to do so and make sure to mention is for us at Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on June 6th, 2023. Thanks to Will Flato, Pat Ryan, Justin Herring, Heidi Lavelle, Abby Graf, Belinda Pulido, Jaden Jennings, Laura Rochon, and Katie Schauer. And of course, thanks again to Steve Horowitz for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be back next week.