NASA received laser communications from 140 million miles away

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NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications experiment also interfaced with the Psyche spacecraft’s communication system for the first time, transmitting engineering data to Earth.
Riding aboard NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, the agency’s Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration continues to break records.
While the asteroid-bound spacecraft doesn’t rely on optical communications to send data, the new technology has proven that it’s up to the task.
After interfacing with the Psyche’s radio frequency transmitter, the laser communications demo sent a copy of engineering data from over 140 million miles (226 million kilometers) away, 1½ times the distance between Earth and the Sun.
“We downlinked about 10 minutes of duplicated spacecraft data during a pass on April 8,” said Meera Srinivasan, the project’s operations lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
It also downlinked large amounts of the tech demo’s own engineering data to study the characteristics of the optical communications link.
(Whereas radio frequency communications can operate in most weather conditions, optical communications require relatively clear skies to transmit high-bandwidth data.)
“Arraying” multiple ground stations to mimic one large receiver can help boost the deep space signal.


Additionally, the Psyche spacecraft’s communication system was interfaced with NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications experiment for the first time, allowing the spacecraft to transmit engineering data to Earth.

Deep Space Optical Communications, an agency technology demonstration, is breaking records while aboard NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. Though data transmission for the asteroid-bound spacecraft does not depend on optical communications, the new technology has demonstrated its capability. The laser communications demonstration sent a copy of engineering data from over 140 million miles (226 million kilometers) away, or one and a half times the distance between Earth and the Sun, after interacting with the Psyche’s radio frequency transmitter.

In order to support humanity’s next great leap—the landing of humans on Mars—this accomplishment offers a peek of how spacecraft may use optical communications in the future. This will allow for higher-data-rate communications of complex scientific information as well as high-definition imagery and video.

The operations lead for the project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Meera Srinivasan, stated, “We downlinked about 10 minutes of duplicate spacecraft data during a pass on April 8.”. We had been using Psyche to send test and diagnostic data in our downlinks up until that point. This demonstrates how radio frequency communications on a spacecraft can be interfaced with optical communications, marking a significant milestone for the project. “.

Present-day deep space missions employ state-of-the-art radio frequency systems, but the laser communications technology demonstrated here is intended to transmit data from deep space at speeds of up to 100 times faster.

Following its October 13, 2023 launch, the spacecraft continues to travel in good health and stability to visit the asteroid Psyche in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Above and Beyond Expectations.

Using a near-infrared downlink laser on the flight laser transceiver, NASA has demonstrated optical communications capability to transfer test data at a maximum rate of 267 megabits per second (Mbps), which is comparable to broadband internet download speeds.

On December 11, 2023, that was accomplished when the experiment transmitted a 15-second ultra-high definition video to Earth from a distance of 19 million miles (31 million kilometers, or roughly 80 times the distance between Earth and the Moon). Before Psyche launched last year, the video and additional test data, including digital copies of artwork inspired by Psyche from Arizona State University, were loaded onto the flight laser transceiver (see image below).

As would be expected, the spacecraft’s data transmission and reception rate has decreased now that it is over seven times further away. The mission’s objective of demonstrating that at least 1 Mbps could be achieved at that distance was greatly exceeded when the spacecraft transmitted test data at a maximum rate of 25 Mbps on April 8.

Additionally, the transceiver was instructed by the project team to transmit data generated by Psyche through optical means. A portion of the data that Psyche was sending over its radio frequency channel to NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) was also being sent by the optical communications system to the primary downlink ground station for the tech demo, the Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California.

Ken Andrews, project flight operations lead at JPL, stated, “We verified the optically downlinked data at JPL after receiving the data from the DSN and Palomar.”. Even though there wasn’t much data downlinked in a short period of time, the fact that we’re doing this at all has exceeded our expectations. “.

Having Fun With Lasers.

Initially, the optical communications demo was used to downlink pre-loaded data, such as the Taters the cat video, after Psyche launched. Since then, the project has demonstrated that the transceiver can successfully receive data from JPL’s Table Mountain facility, located close to Wrightwood, California, using a high-power uplink laser. In a recent “turnaround experiment,” the project demonstrated that data could even be transmitted to the transceiver and then downlinked back to Earth in the same evening. “.

This experiment sent digital pet photos and test data to Psyche and back, covering a maximum distance of 280 million miles (450 million kilometers) in one direction. In order to investigate the properties of the optical communications link, it also downlinked a sizable quantity of the tech demo’s own engineering data.

The project’s JPL receiver electronics lead, Ryan Rogalin, stated, “We’ve learned a great deal about how far we can push the system when we do have clear skies, although storms have interrupted operations at both Table Mountain and Palomar on occasion.”. Radio frequency communications can function under a variety of weather conditions, but optical communications need relatively clear skies in order to send large amounts of data. ( ).

Palomar, the experimental radio frequency-optical antenna at the DSN’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in Barstow, California, and a detector at Table Mountain were all involved in a recent experiment led by JPL to jointly receive the same signal. To increase the deep space signal, several ground stations can be “arrayed” to resemble a single, big receiver. In the event that bad weather forces one ground station offline, other stations can still receive the signal thanks to this tactic.

More About the Mission.

Under NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, the Technology Demonstration Missions (TDM) program, and the agency’s SCaN (Space Communications and Navigation) program, which is housed within the Space Operations Mission Directorate, have been funding optical communication experiments, the most recent of which is being managed by JPL. The flight laser transceiver is being developed with assistance from Controlled Dynamics Inc., L3 Harris, First Mode, CACI, and MIT Lincoln Laboratory. , and the ground systems are supported by Fibertek, Coherent, and Dotfast. NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program helped develop a portion of the technology.

The Psyche mission is led by Arizona State University. Operations, system engineering, integration and testing, and general management of the mission fall under the purview of JPL. Psyche is the fourteenth mission chosen for NASA’s Discovery Program, which is overseen by the Science Mission Directorate at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. NASA oversaw the launch service through its Launch Services Program, which is situated at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis was supplied by Palo Alto, California-based Maxar Technologies.

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