In a world where information is expected with the click of a mouse, the fact that data from space takes 90 minutes to reach laboratories on Earth in some cases is just not fast enough. According to a NASA, this amount of time "bottlenecks" the scientific return.
In an upgrade that NASA officials are likening to a switch from dial-up to broadband, the space agency announced it is beginning work on a demonstration, which will be ready in 2016, that uses high-tech optical laser systems to transmit more information at a faster speed.
Current communication between Earth and space uses radio frequency. An optical communications transmitter should be able to transmit data from Mars back to Earth in five minutes. The release has more:
"We want to take NASA's communications capabilities to the next level," said [Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD)] Principal Investigator Dave Israel, who is leading a multi-organizational team that includes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. and Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass. Although NASA has developed higher data-rate radio frequency systems, data-compression, and other techniques to boost the amount of data that its current systems can handle, the Agency's capabilities will not keep pace with the projected data needs of advanced instruments and future human exploration, Israel added.
"Just as the home Internet user hit the wall with dial-up, NASA is approaching the limit of what its existing communications network can handle," he said.
The Register goes on to report:
The new laser-based system would allow 100Mbps data rates instead of 6Mbps.
The trial run of the new optical laser system will require a "payload" of telescopes, lasers, mirrors, detectors, a pointing-and-tracking system, control electronics, and two different types of modems to be bolted onto a commercial communications satellite. The specially equipped stations on the ground will test the transmission by encoding digital data and transmitting the information to the payload, which will then be relayed back to ground stations located in Southern California and Hawaii.
One of the modems bundled into the the payload is ideal for communicating with deep space missions, while the other supports a much higher bit-rate and can communicate with Earth-orbiting craft, including the International Space Station.
The first successful back-and-forth communication via laser between Earth and space occurred in 2006.