NASA and Laser Communications


NASA has successfully brought a new form of communication to earth, literally. The new information transferring technology came from the International Space Station. The message was sent via laser to the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory located inside the Table Mountain Observatory in California, NASA lead the research effort and the ISS successfully sent the video message.

The process was likened to attempting to shoot a human hair with a laser pointer while walking. Since the space station is moving at over 15,000 miles per hour, it might seem like a difficult, however a piece of cake for the OPALS crew. The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science which is the program that NASA is using to test the possibility of decreasing the time it takes communicate by using optical communications. The process has been months in the making, first the Dragon CRS3 KSC SLC-40 was sent up to the ISS with their OPALS device on board on April 18, after unloading the OPALS instrument, it was installed onto the ISS with some robotic aid, then the OPALS device started to use a laser to track its orbit around the earth to better anticipate when it would be over the Observatory. When the tracking has been done there is only the matter of waiting for the OPALS instruments chance to shine like a laser. After presumably patient waiting the time had come, the testing commenced; first the ground Lab shot a laser at the ISS when the station was visible over the tree line, once the OPALS device received it, the ISS realigned to a better orbit, and that was when history was made, for about 150 seconds the station was in-line with the Lab and in laser contact with the OPALS instrument, which reached a maximum upload speed of about 50 megabits per second, though the time between sending the video and receiving it was only 3.5 seconds, a vast improvement over the 10 minutes NASA communications usually require.

While the difference between 3.5 seconds and 10 minutes is monumental, the humble pioneers compared their breakthrough technology to first discovering broadband over dial-up which seems to diminish their extraordinary accomplishment in terms of statistics. This age of information that we live in is obsessed with speed, because no-one in this era likes waiting for anything, so this hyper speed jump in communications will hopefully prove to be revolutionary and spread like wildfire. There has not been any information as to whether or not there will be any modes of encrypting the optical communications, though the assumption is that it will not be as easy as just intercepting the laser. Even if it is, getting the proper technology will be hard enough, without considering the fact that if intercepted the recipient would immediately be aware, when the beam is broken. Worst case scenario, unencrypted communications will be flying around the airwaves at the speed of light via laser, and since NASA was the pioneer of this new technology it is theoretically possible that we will eventually be sending videos of peace to potential life-harboring planets in the not so near future.

By Eddie Mejia

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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