Space Image

NASA Demonstrates Advanced High-Speed Laser Communication System with Pet Imagery Transmission

NASA has successfully demonstrated the potential of its first two-way, end-to-end laser relay system by transmitting pictures and videos of cherished pets through space at a staggering rate of 1.2 gigabits per second.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Mon Jun 10 2024Written by Zac Aubert

NASA has successfully demonstrated the potential of its first two-way, end-to-end laser relay system by transmitting pictures and videos of cherished pets through space at a staggering rate of 1.2 gigabits per second. This speed surpasses most home internet speeds, marking a significant milestone in space communications.

Astronauts Randy Bresnik, Christina Koch, and Kjell Lindgren, along with other NASA employees, contributed photos and videos of their pets for this unique demonstration. These transmissions showcased the capabilities of NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program, while also testing a new networking technique.

“The pet imagery campaign has been rewarding on multiple fronts for the ILLUMA-T, LCRD, and HDTN teams. Not only have they demonstrated how these technologies can play an essential role in enabling NASA’s future science and exploration missions, it also provided a fun opportunity for the teams to ‘picture’ their pets assisting with this innovative demonstration.” - Kevin Coggins, Deputy Associate Administrator and SCaN Program Manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington

The inspiration behind this demonstration came from "Taters the Cat"—an orange cat whose video was transmitted 19 million miles via laser links to the DSOC (Deep Space Optical Communications) payload on the Psyche mission.

The LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration), DSOC, and ILLUMA-T (Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal) are part of NASA’s ongoing efforts to validate laser communication technology.

The pet images and videos began their journey at a mission operations center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The data was routed to optical ground stations in California and Hawaii, where teams modulated the data onto infrared light signals (lasers) and sent them to LCRD, located 22,000 miles above Earth in geosynchronous orbit. LCRD then relayed the data to ILLUMA-T, mounted on the exterior of the International Space Station.

Traditionally, NASA has relied on radio frequency communications for space data transmission. Laser communications, also known as optical communications, use infrared light instead of radio waves. While both travel at the speed of light, infrared light can transfer more data in a single link due to its tighter wavelength, making it more efficient for scientific data transfer.

The demonstration also provided an opportunity to test a new networking technique. Data transmission across vast distances in space often faces delays and potential data loss. To address this, NASA developed Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN), a suite of protocols enabling data forwarding or storage for future transmission if signals are disrupted.

To support higher data rates, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland developed High-Rate Delay Tolerant Networking (HDTN). This advanced implementation facilitates high-speed data transfer between spacecraft, enhancing the "store-and-forward" capability of DTN by enabling data transfer up to four times faster than current technology.

HDTN aggregates data from various sources, such as scientific instruments on the space station, and prepares it for transmission back to Earth. For the pet photo and video experiment, DTN protocols routed the content from Earth to LCRD and then to ILLUMA-T on the space station. An onboard HDTN payload demonstrated its ability to receive and reassemble the data into coherent files.

This optimized DTN technology aims to enable various communications services for NASA, including improved security through encryption and authentication, and network routing of high-definition multimedia. These capabilities are currently being tested on the space station with ILLUMA-T and LCRD.

As NASA’s Artemis program aims to establish a sustainable presence on and around the Moon, SCaN will continue to develop cutting-edge communications technology to equip such operations with near instant communications.