Space Station to Test Laser Communications

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NASA will begin testing laser communications technology that could dramatically improve spacecraft communication transmission rates by a factor of 10 to 100.

The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) instrument will be mounted on the outside of the International Space Station and communicate with a ground receiver at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s (JPL) Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory in Wrightwood, Calif. The space agency will also send a reference beacon from the ground telescope, and the two transmissions will be tracked. Each demonstration will last for approximately 100 s.

“It’s like aiming a laser pointer continuously for two minutes at a dot the diameter of a human hair from 30 feet away while you’re walking,” explained OPALS system engineer Bogdan Oaida of JPL, where the instrument was built.

The OPALS flight system, developed at JPL, will beam down to Earth from the International Space Station.
The OPALS flight system, developed at JPL, will beam down to Earth from the International Space Station. Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The device has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where it will be sent to the ISS via a SpaceX Dragon commercial resupply capsule on the Falcon 9 rocket later this year. The mission is expected to run 90 days after installation.

“OPALS represents a tangible stepping-stone for laser communications, and the International Space Station is a great platform for an experiment like this,” said Michael Kokorowski, OPALS project manager at JPL. “Future operational laser communication systems will have the ability to transmit more data from spacecraft down to the ground than they currently do, mitigating a significant bottleneck for scientific investigations and commercial ventures.”

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Published: July 2013
AmericasBogdan OaidaCaliforniaCommunicationsFloridaInternational Space StationJet Propulsion LaboratoryJPLKennedy Space Centerlaser communicationsLasersMichael KokorowskiNASAOPALSOptical Payload for Lasercomm ScienceResearch & Technologyspacecraft communication

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