Space lasers: not just for Star Wars anymore

Contributed by
Jun 24, 2017

Starships (Millennium Falcon or otherwise) have been shooting lasers onscreen so long as there have been science fiction movies, but lasers are far more useful in space than vaporizing the Death Star.

At last week’s FutureCon, which was positively exploding with everything that will blast humanity into the future, a panel of scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center highlighted how lasers are navigating new frontiers in space exploration, geology and environmental studies here on Earth.

Lasers have the accuracy to zero in on a target and return ridiculously precise measurements and observations. No wonder brain surgeons—and anyone remotely interested in Mars—depend on them. Google Mars uses lasers to bring the topography of the Red Planet to life even if there is nothing else that we know of living on it. The geobrowser gets its otherworldly images, the most detailed in the solar system, from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) on the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft, which successfully mapped the Martian surface from 2001 to 2006. Splicing its data with numerous observations has produced some of the most mind-blowing visuals you’ve ever seen.   

A topographical image of Mars made possible by the lasers of MOLA.

NASA is also beaming lasers at the moon. The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), basically the lunar version of MOLA, has gathered billions of pieces of data from the moon’s crater-studded surface. Scientists have been able to create unreal topographical maps of our satellite using this data. Broadband has even come to the moon via laser. With a pulsed laser beam, the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration tried out a communication system that reaches from Earth to the moon and back and downloads data at 622 megabits per second.

The laser treatment also extends to Earth. Launching next year, NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) will use a six-laser array to better understand global climate change through melting ice at the poles. The Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) will calculate biomass and create 3D maps of forests starting in 2019. Like something out of a David Bowie music video, the disco ball-esque LAser GEOdynamic Satellite (LAGEOS) duo took off when neon nightclubs were blasting Fame back in 1976 and has been zapping back laser beams fired from the surface since. Scientists built the first models of our planet’s gravitational field with the data it returned. These galactic glitter bombs are predicted to stay in space for at least another million years, if not 2 million.

The LAGEOS 2 orbiter, coming to a space disco near you.

Next, NASA is looking at lasers as a defense, though not the sort designed to blow up invading spacecraft crawling with aliens (see above). These lasers would save astronauts and equipment from getting pulverized by random space junk.

 “It’s good that [people] get a variety of the things we do at NASA, and maybe how it all comes together—for communication for mapping the planet for exploration.” said optical systems engineer and panelist Luis Ramos-Izquierdo. “We gotta do all that work now, for science fiction to become real.”