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NASA Pursues Photonics Technology for Space Demos
Aug 2011
WASHINGTON, Aug. 26, 2011 — NASA has selected three technology demonstration missions that it says will transform its space communications, deep-space navigation and in-space propulsion capabilities. The three projects include a solar sail, a deep-space atomic clock and a laser communication system.

Technology demonstration mission projects encompass all elements of the flight test demonstration, including test planning, flight hardware, launch, ground operations, and post-testing assessment and reporting. To reduce cost, the three selected technology demonstrations will ride to space with other payloads aboard commercially provided launch vehicles. Launches are anticipated in 2015 and 2016.

Laser Communications Relay Demonstration Mission (LCRD)

Led by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the LCRD will demonstrate a reliable, capable and cost-effective optical communications technology for infusion into operational near-Earth and deep-space systems. High-rate optical communication rates are 10 to 100 times more capable than current radio-frequency systems and will allow greatly improved connectivity, enable a new generation of remote scientific investigations, and will provide the satellite communication industry with disruptive technology not available today. Space laser communications will enable missions to use bandwidth-hungry instruments, such as hyperspectral imagers, synthetic aperture radar and other instruments with high-definition in spectral, spatial or temporal modes.

Deep-Space Atomic Clock (DSAC) 

Led by the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the DSAC team will develop a small, low-mass atomic clock based on mercury-ion trap technology and demonstrate it in space, providing the stability needed for next-generation deep-space navigation and radio science. The project will show improved data quality by up to 10 times for more accurate navigation, gravity science and occultation science at remote solar system bodies by using one-way radiometric links. The DSAC flight demonstration mission will bring the laboratory-qualified technology to Technology Readiness Level 7, making a practical atomic clock available to a wide variety of space missions.

A Mission-Capable Solar Sail

NASA's Solar Sail. (Image: NASA)

Led by L’Garde Inc. of Tustin, Calif., in collaboration with The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this Solar Sail demonstration will enable propellant-less in-space navigation for deep-space missions such as advanced geostorm warning, economic orbital debris removal, and deep-space exploration. The Solar Sail demonstration mission will deploy and operate a sail area seven times larger than ever flown in space with potential applicability to a wide range of future space missions, including an advanced space weather warning system to provide more timely and accurate notice of solar flare activity.

"These technology demonstration missions will improve our communications, navigation and in-space propulsion capabilities, enable future missions that could not otherwise be performed, and build the technological capability of America's space industry," said Bobby Braun, NASA’s chief technologist. "Optical communication will enable rapid return of the voluminous data associated with sending spacecraft and humans to new frontiers. High-performance atomic clocks enable a level of spacecraft navigation precision and autonomous operations in deep space never before achieved, and solar sails enable new space missions through highly efficient station keeping or propellantless main propulsion capabilities for spacecraft."

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The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
AmericasBasic ScienceBobby BraunCalifornia Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion LaboratoryCommunicationsdeep space navigationdeep-space atomic clockDSACenergygeostorm warningGoddard Space Flight Centergreen photonicshyperspectral imagersLaser Communications Relay DemonstrationLCRDLGarde Inc.MarylandNASANASA chief technologistNational Oceanic and Atmospheric AdministrationNOAAoptical communicationopticsorbital debris removalphotonicspropellantless in-space navigationradio scienceResearch & Technologysolar flare activitysolar sailsolar system bodiesspace demonstrationsspace laser communicationspace weather warning systemsynthetic aperture radartechnology readiness level 7lasers

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