By Mike Wall
Since the dawn of the space age, NASA probes have beamed data home to Earth using radio-frequency communication. But that's all set to change soon.
The space agency is working hard to develop laser-based space communications systems, which officials say are key to ensuring rapid and accurate transmission of information from spacecraft around the solar system.
"With missions developing more highly detailed science and larger volumes of data, radio-based communication links can be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data being pushed to the ground, providing a need for higher data rates that can only be achieved with optical communication," NASA officials wrote in a description of the agency's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration mission (LCRD), which is slated to lift off in December 2017.
Demonstrating laser communications
LCRD will launch to geosynchronous orbit as a hosted payload on a commercial communications satellite developed by the company Space Systems/Loral.
The experiment's two optical modules will use lasers to send information to two ground stations, one in California and one in New Mexico, at rates of up to 1.25 gigabytes per second. LCRD will operate for at least two years, with the aim of demonstrating the long-term viability of a space-based laser communications system.
LCRD will leverage technology that has already shown its stuff in space. The mission is based heavily on the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration experiment, or LLCD, which launched to the moon aboard NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer spacecraft last month.
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