The recent opening of the movie Gravity has many looking to space with a renewed curiosity about the technological marvels that have been deployed over the years by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Many of the mainstream commercial technologies we now take for granted were originally developed by NASA or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the Defense Department. Useful tools ranging from LED lights to infrared scanning and GPS may soon have a new sibling from the same point of origin making its way toward commercial applications.
NASA announced it has set a new record for communication in space by beaming information from a substation on Earth to the LADEE probe currently orbiting the moon nearly 236,121 miles away. The LADEE probe is the home of the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) device which recorded the record breaking communication at a speed of 622 megabits per second (Mbps). Most high end broadband consumer bandwidth is presently limited to around 75 Mbps by comparison and uploads of only 50 Mbps. When dealing with huge distances, the radio signal system formerly used by NASA to communicate with lunar satellites was approximately five times slower than the new laser transmission technology.
NASA used radio waves and they are still the preferred method because they require much less ‘aiming’ to be effective, but as a target gets farther away, much more power is needed to transmit the signal. That means much larger receiving dishes and antennas on probes that get as long as 70 meters. Using a concentrated beam of light, a spacecraft may be able to send data at much faster rates carrying higher resolution images and transmitting the first 3D video of deep space.
While there is reason to be excited, the LLCD method still has many challenges to overcome, especially in the realm of “aim” because it requires a laser beam to hit a very specific target that can be thousands of miles away, while the target continues to move – and any deviation from that direct hit will result in dropped transmissions. Add in the complications of atmospheric changes, weather and so on… and it becomes easy to see that spaceships are likely to carry both a radio and an LLCD set of communication systems for the foreseeable future.
That being said, NASA intends to launch a larger more sophisticated version of the LLCD in 2017, calling it the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which may provide even greater speeds and reliability. As the world continues to move toward wireless devices, mobile connectivity and a need for even greater speeds of transfer with crucial packets of information, NationalNet will continue to monitor all advancements in the communications field to keep our clients ahead of the curve. We may not be far off from relays of concentrated light based transfer systems that allow wireless devices to operate at untethered fiber-optic speeds.