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NASA’s Space Station Laser Communication Terminal Achieves Milestone

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NASA ILLUMA-T Payload in Goddard Cleanroom

NASA’s ILLUMA-T payload in a Goddard cleanroom. The payload was installed on the International Space Station to demo higher data rates with NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration. Credit: Dennis Henry

NASA successfully completed the first two-way laser communication link between the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) and the Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T) aboard the International Space Station, marking a significant advancement in space communication technology.

A NASA technology experiment on the International Space Station completed its first laser link with an in-orbit laser relay system on December 5, 2023. Together, they complete NASA’s first two-way, end-to-end laser relay system.

NASA’s LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) and the new space station demonstration, ILLUMA-T (Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal), successfully exchanged data for the first time. LCRD and ILLUMA-T are demonstrating how a user mission, in this case, the space station, can benefit from a laser communications relay located in geosynchronous orbit.

NASA ILLUMA-T Payload Communicating With LCRD

NASA’s ILLUMA-T payload communicating with LCRD over laser signals. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan

Laser communications, also known known as optical communications, uses infrared light rather than traditional radio waves to send and receive signals. The tighter wavelength of infrared light allows spacecraft to pack more data into each transmission. Using laser communications greatly increases the efficiency of data transfer and can lead to a faster pace of scientific discoveries.

Benefits of Laser Communications

The benefits of laser communications: more efficient, lighter systems, increased security, and more flexible ground systems. Credit: NASA / Dave Ryan

On November 9, NASA’s SpaceX 29th commercial resupply services mission launched cargo and new science experiments, including ILLUMA-T, to the space station. Following its arrival, the payload was installed onto the station’s Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility.

NASA SpaceX CRS-29 Launch

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon spacecraft lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on November 9, 2023, on the company’s 29th commercial resupply services mission for the agency to the International Space Station. Dragon will deliver scientific research, technology demonstrations, crew supplies, and hardware to the space station to support its Expedition 70 crew, including NASA’s Integrated Laser Communications Relay Demonstration Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T) and Atmospheric Waves Experiment (AWE). Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

ILLUMA-T and LCRD are a part of the NASA Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program’s effort to demonstrate how laser communications technologies can significantly benefit science and exploration missions.

“ILLUMA-T’s first link with LCRD – known as first light – is the latest demonstration proving that laser communications is the future.” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, director of SCaN’s Advanced Communications and Navigation Technology division. “Laser communications will not only return more data from science missions, but could serve as NASA’s critical, two-way link to keep astronauts connected to Earth as they explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”

NASA’s ILLUMA-T payload achieved First Light with LCRD. In this video, Matt Magsamen explains the First Light milestone. Credit: NASA

Shortly after space station installation, operation engineers began conducting on-orbit testing to ensure the ILLUMA-T payload operated nominally. Now, it is communicating with LCRD, a relay launched in 2021 that has conducted over 300 experiment configurations to help NASA refine laser communications technologies. LCRD and ILLUMA-T are exchanging data at 1.2 gigabits-per-second.

“We have demonstrated that we can overcome the technical challenges for successful space communications using laser communications. We are now performing operational demonstrations and experiments that will allow us to optimize our infusion of proven technology into our missions to maximize our exploration and science,” said David Israel, a NASA space communications and navigation architect.

NASA Laser Communications Roadmap

NASA’s Laser Communications Roadmap. Credit: NASA / Dave Ryan

The LCRD experiments are conducted with industry, academia, and other government agencies. ILLUMA-T is now LCRD’s first in-space user experiment. NASA is still accepting experiments to work with LCRD. Interested parties should contact [email protected] for more information.

ILLUMA-T is funded by NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The payload is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Partners include the International Space Station program office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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