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NASA Will Test Laser Communications on Artemis II, Increasing Space Bandwidth
Just don't drive your spaceship through a tunnel.
Science fiction stories love breaking the lightspeed barrier. If you want a story which involves more than just humans or more than just one star system, it helps if you can travel and communicate across vast distances quickly. By contrast, Battlestar Galactica (now streaming on Peacock!), gave us a slightly more realistic vision of advanced space travel with more believable communications limits.
When humans in the BSG universe want to send a message, they use “Wireless” communication. In-universe, Wireless is distinct from the generalized term we use in the real world to refer to cellular communication or Wi-Fi. It’s functionally the same as the contemporary radio communications systems we use on and around Earth, with all of the same limitations in frequency, distance, and bandwidth. While the Colonials may have been limited to radio-based Wireless, our real-world space communications network is getting a serious upgrade.
BUILDING A LASER COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK IN SPACE
Historically, crewed and uncrewed space missions have relied on radio communications to beam information between the spacecraft and the Earth. Those radio signals have to travel incredible distances before reaching our antennae, which limits the amount of data you can send and the strength of the signal you receive.
That’s why NASA is in the process of developing a laser-based communications network around the Earth and, eventually, to more distant cosmic locales. On December 7, 2021, NASA launched their Laser Communications Relay Demonstration spacecraft, followed by the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) CubeSat on May 25, 2022. TBIRD recently succeeded in a data uplink with speeds of 200 gigabits per second, the highest data rate ever achieved by an optical communications system, according to NASA.
The next addition to humanity’s space-laser communications network is NASA’s awkwardly named Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T), planned for launch sometime in 2023. Once in orbit, ILLUMA-T will be mounted to the Japanese experiment module-expose facility (JEM-EF) of the International Space Station, delivering the first laser communications to the ISS. Information from the station will be sent from ILLUMA-T to the LCRD, which will relay the information to receivers on the ground via the world’s first space-based optical communications network.
TAKING LASER COMMUNICATION TO THE MOON
The new laser communications technology will be put to the ultimate test, when it’s used as part of Artemis II, the first crewed Artemis lunar mission. The Orion spacecraft will be equipped with the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O) which will temporarily extend our laser communications network to the vicinity of the Moon, when astronauts carry it there on their 10-day mission.
“The idea is to have high-definition video transmissions to and from the Moon over laser links. If you recall the images from the Apollo mission, they were grainy and difficult to see, but O2O will allow Artemis astronauts to send videos and images significantly more vivid and detailed. This is an incredible advancement in technology,” said Project Manager Steven Horowitz, via NASA’s Exploration & Space Communications.
The difference between the Apollo radio communications systems and the Artemis O2O is akin to the difference between dial-up internet and optical fiber. The lasers employed by the O2O will send information using infrared light packed into a tightly compacted beam, which extends both the amount of data we can transmit and the distance it can traverse, opening up the possibility of exploration to deeper parts of the cosmos.
Instruments aboard Artemis II will collect information during the mission and transmit that information via laser to two ground terminals on Earth: one at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Table Mountain Facility in Southern California, and the second at the White Sands Complex in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They’ll pick up the transmissions, convert them back into electrical data, and pass them through to mission control.
The O2O is made up of three main components. The first is the controller electronics which interface with Orion’s flight avionics system to orient the instrument. The second is the optical module itself, which is made of a 4-inch telescope and two gimbals which take information from the controller electronics and physically points the telescope toward the ground terminals on Earth. Last is the modem, which takes mission data and converts it to laser data.
During the Artemis II mission, the O2O will provide a downlink rate of up to 260 megabits per second. That’s good enough to transmit 4K ultra-high-definition video from the Moon in essentially real time. When Artemis II circles the Moon, and when Artemis III touches down, we’ll be treated to the most detailed visions of the lunar surface ever seen. But giving ground-based observers a clearer window to the Moon is only the beginning.
Laser communications will also give astronauts a more robust line of communication with the Earth and supporting spacecraft. They’ll get everything from flight plans and procedures to voice calls and photos, to and from Earth, using the laser communications network. With that, we will have officially outdone the humans of BSG in at least one capacity. The Cylons will never see us coming.
Catch Battlestar Galactica, streaming in its entirety on Peacock!