It currently takes 90 minutes to transmit high-resolution images from Mars, but NASA would like to dramatically reduce that time to just minutes. A new optical communications system that NASA will demonstrate in 2016 will allow the streaming of high-definition video from distances beyond the Moon.

A conceptual image of the LCRD. (NASA)
The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will be developed by a team led by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. LCRD is expected to fly as a hosted payload on a commercial communications satellite developed by Space Systems/Loral, of Palo Alto, CA.

The LCRD will augment NASA's legacy radio-based network, which includes a fleet of tracking and data relay satellites and a network of ground stations, with optical systems, that could increase data rates by 10 to 100 times. The transition will take several years to complete, but the eventual payback will be very large increases in the amount of data that can be transmitted, both downlink and uplink, especially to distant destinations in the solar system and beyond.

To demonstrate the new capability, the Goddard team will encode digital data and transmit the information via laser light from specially equipped ground stations to an experimental payload hosted on the commercial communications satellite. The payload will include telescopes, lasers, mirrors, detectors, a pointing and tracking system, control electronics, and two different types of modems. One modem is ideal for communicating with deep space missions or tiny, low-power satellites operating in low-Earth orbit. The other can handle much higher data rates, particularly from Earth-orbiting spacecraft, including the International Space Station.

Visit www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/laser-comm.html for more information.

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