Laser Demonstration Reveals Bright Future for Space Communication

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English: LADEE lunar orbiter Deutsch: LADEE Mondorbiter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The completion of the 30-day Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration or LLCD mission has revealed that the possibility of expanding broadband capabilities in space using laser communications is as bright as expected.

Hosted aboard the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer known as LADEE, for its ride to lunar orbit, the LLCD was designed to confirm laser communication capabilities from a distance of almost a quarter-of-a-million miles.  In addition to demonstrating record-breaking data download and upload speeds to the moon at 622 megabits per second (Mbps) and 20 Mbps, respectively, LLCD also showed that it could operate as well as any NASA radio system.  “Throughout our testing we did not see anything that would prevent the operational use of this technology in the immediate future,” said Don Cornwell, LLCD mission manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

For example, LLCD demonstrated error-free communications during broad daylight, including operating when the moon was to within three degrees of the sun as seen from Earth. LLCD also demonstrated error-free communications when the moon was low on the horizon, less than 4 degrees, as seen from the ground station, which also demonstrated that wind and atmospheric turbulence did not significantly impact the system. LLCD was even able to communicate through thin clouds, an unexpected bonus.

Operationally, LLCD demonstrated the ability to download data from the LADEE spacecraft itself.  “We were able to download LADEE’s entire stored science and spacecraft data [1 gigabyte] in less than five minutes, which was only limited to our 40 Mbps connection to that data within LADEE” said Cornwell.  Using LADEE’s onboard radio system would take several days to complete a download of the same stored data.  Additionally, LLCD was to prove the integrity of laser technology to send not only error-free data but also uncorrupted commands and telemetry or monitoring messages to and from the spacecraft over the laser link.

LLCD also demonstrated the ability to “hand-off” the laser connection from one ground station to another, just as a cellphone does a hand-off from one cell tower to another. An additional achievement was the ability to operate LLCD without using LADEE’s radio at all. “We were able to program LADEE to awaken the LLCD space terminal and have it automatically point and communicate to the ground station at a specific time without radio commands. This demonstrates that this technology could serve as the primary communications system for future NASA missions,” said Cornwell.

The ability of LLCD to send and receive high definition video was proven with a message from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, completing the trip to the moon and back with only a few seconds of delay. “Administrator Bolden’s message demonstrates NASA’s support for advancing this technology for both space and Earth applications,” said Cornwell. “It also allowed the LLCD team to showcase the quality and fidelity of our HD video transmissions over our laser communication link to and from the moon.”

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Historic Demonstration Proves Laser Communication Possible

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An artist’s concept of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft seen orbiting near the surface of the moon. Image Credit: NASA/Ames/Dana Berry

The download rate is more than six times faster than previous state-of-the-art radio systems flown to the moon

In the early morning hours of Oct. 18, NASA’s Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) made history, transmitting data from lunar orbit to Earth at a rate of 622 Megabits-per-second (Mbps). That download rate is more than six times faster than previous state-of-the-art radio systems flown to the moon.

“It was amazing how quickly we were able to acquire the first signals, especially from such a distance,” said Don Cornwell, LLCD manager. “I attribute this success to the great work accomplished over the years by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (MIT/LL) and their partnership with NASA.”

LLCD is being flown aboard the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer satellite known as LADEE, currently orbiting the moon. LADEE is a 100-day robotic mission designed, built, tested and operated by a team from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Its primary science mission is to investigate the tenuous and exotic atmosphere that exists around the moon.

LADEE, with LLCD onboard, reached lunar orbit 30 days after launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., on Sept. 6.  During the trip, the LADEE team provided an opportunity for LLCD to make post-flight calibrations of its pointing knowledge. “Being able to make those calibrations allowed us to lock onto our signal almost instantaneously when we turned on the laser at the moon,” said Cornwell. “A critical part of laser communication is being able to point the narrow laser beam at a very small target over a great distance.”

LLCD not only demonstrated a record-breaking download rate but also an error-free data upload rate of 20 Mbps. The laser beam was transmitted the 239,000 miles from the primary ground station at NASA’s White Sands Complex in Las Cruces N.M., to the LADEE spacecraft in lunar orbit. This breakthrough technology has a laser-based space terminal that is half the weight of a comparable radio-based terminal while using 25 percent less power.

These first tests of the month-long demonstration have included the successful LLCD transmission, by pulsed laser beam, of two simultaneous channels carrying high-definition video streams to and from the moon.  Proving the capability to communicate with multiple locations, LLCD successfully transmitted its beam several times to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory in California. Soon testing will also include transmissions originating from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Optical Ground Station in Tenerife, Spain.

The tests also confirmed LLCD’s capability of providing continuous measurements of the distance from the Earth to the LADEE spacecraft with an unprecedented accuracy of less than half an inch. “We hope this demonstration validates the capabilities and builds confidence in laser communication technology for consideration on future missions,” said Cornwell.

LLCD has also transmitted large data files from the LADEE spacecraft computer to Earth. “These first results have far exceeded our expectation,” said Cornwell. “Just imagine the ability to transmit huge amounts of data that would take days in a matter of minutes. We believe laser-based communications is the next paradigm shift in future space communications.”

Future testing will include how well the system operates in optically stressed conditions such as daytime (all operations have been at night), full moon verses new moon, and different pointing positions for the ground terminals. “These series of tests will allow us to sample different conditions to demonstrate the flexibility of the technology,” said Cornwell.

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Space Laser To Prove Increased Broadband Possible

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This new ability could one day allow for 3-D High Definition video transmissions in deep space to become routine.

When NASA’s Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) begins operation aboard the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) mission managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., it will attempt to show two-way laser communication beyond Earth is possible, expanding the possibility of transmitting huge amounts of data. This new ability could one day allow for 3-D High Definition video transmissions in deep space to become routine.

“The goal of the LLCD experiment is to validate and build confidence in this technology so that future missions will consider using it,” said Don Cornwell, LLCD manager. “This unique ability developed by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory), has incredible application possibilities and we are very excited to get this instrument off the ground.”

Since NASA first ventured into space, through the moon landings, shuttle program, and unmanned exploration missions, radio frequency communication also known as RF, has been the communications platform used. But RF is reaching its limit just as demand for more data capacity continues to increase. The development of laser communications will give NASA the ability to extend communication applications such as increased image resolution and even 3-D video transmission into deep space.

LLCD is NASA’s first dedicated system for two-way communication using laser instead of radio waves. “LLCD is designed to send six times more data from the moon using a smaller transmitter with 25 percent less power as compared to the equivalent state-of-the-art radio (RF) system,” said Cornwell. “Lasers are also more secure and less susceptible to interference and jamming.”

The LLCD experiment is hosted aboard NASA’s LADEE: a 100-day robotic mission designed, built, integrated, tested and will be operated by Ames. LADEE will attempt to confirm whether dust caused a mysterious glow on the lunar horizon astronauts observed during several Apollo missions and explore the moon’s tenuous, exotic atmosphere. Launch of the LADEE spacecraft is set for September aboard a U.S. Air Force Minotaur V rocket, an excess ballistic missile converted into a space launch vehicle and operated by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.

The LADEE spacecraft will take 30 days to reach the moon because of its flight path. LLCD will begin operations shortly after arrival into lunar orbit and continue for 30 days afterward.

LLCD’s main mission objective is to transmit hundreds of millions of bits of data per second from the moon to Earth. This is equivalent to transmitting more than 100 HD television channels simultaneously. LLCD receiving capability will also be tested as tens of millions of bits per second are sent from Earth to the spacecraft. These demonstrations will prove the technology for increased bandwidth for future missions is possible.

There is a primary ground terminal at NASA’s White Sands Complex in New Mexico, to receive and transmit LLCD signals. The team at MIT designed, built, and tested the terminal. They also will be responsible for LLCD’s operation at that site.

There are two alternate sites, one located at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which is for receiving only. The other is being provided by the European Space Agency on the Spanish island of Tenerife, off the coast of Africa. It will have two-way communication capability with LLCD. “Having several sites gives us alternatives which greatly reduces the possibility of interference from clouds,” said Cornwell.

LLCD is a short duration experiment and the precursor to NASA’s long duration demonstration, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). It also is a part of the agency’s Technology Demonstration Missions Program, which is working to develop crosscutting technology capable of operating in the rigors of space. LCRD is scheduled to launch in 2017.

NASA engineers believe this technology becomes even more advantageous for communications beyond Earth’s orbit.  In the past, NASA has experimented with sending low amounts of individual pulses to cameras on far-away space probes near Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury.

Recently, an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa, was transmitted to NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft orbiting the moon. “But this was done at only hundreds of data bits per second,” said Cornwell. “LLCD will be the first dedicated optical communication system and will send data millions of times faster.”

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NASA’s First Laser Communication System Integrated, Ready for Launch

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A new NASA-developed, laser-based space communication system will enable higher rates of satellite communications similar in capability to high-speed fiber optic networks on Earth.

A new NASA-developed, laser-based space communication system will enable higher rates of satellite communications similar in capability to high-speed fiber optic networks on Earth.

The space terminal for the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD), NASA’s first high-data-rate laser communication system, was recently integrated onto the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. LLCD will demonstrate laser communications from lunar orbit to Earth at six times the rate of the best modern-day advanced radio communication systems.

“The successful testing and integration of LLCD to LADEE is a major accomplishment,” said Donald Cornwell, LLCD mission manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “It demonstrates that this new technology is robust and ready for space. This is the first time NASA has had such a communication system pass all its tests and be certified flight ready.”

The LLCD mission will use a highly reliable infrared laser, similar to those used to bring high-speed data over fiber optic cables into our workplaces and homes. Data, sent in the form of hundreds of millions of short pulses of light every second, will be sent by the LADEE spacecraft to any one of three ground telescopes in New Mexico, California and Spain.

The real challenge of LLCD will be to point its very narrow laser beam accurately to ground stations across a distance of approximately 238,900 miles while moving. Failure to do so would cause a dropped signal or loss of communication.

“This pointing challenge is the equivalent of a golfer hitting a ‘hole-in-one’ from a distance of almost five miles,” said Cornwell. “Developers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory have designed a sophisticated system to cancel out the slightest spacecraft vibrations. This is in addition to dealing with other challenges of pointing and tracking the system from such a distance. We are excited about these advancements.”

The LLCD mission will also serve as a pathfinder for the 2017 launch of NASA’s Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD). That mission will demonstrate the long-term viability of laser communication from a geostationary relay satellite to Earth. In a geostationary orbit the spacecraft orbits at the same speed as Earth, which allows it to maintain the same position in the sky.

Engineers believe that future space missions will be able to use laser communication technology with its low mass and power requirements, to provide increased data quantity for real-time communication and 3-D high-definition video. For example, using S-band communications aboard the LADEE spacecraft would take 639 hours to download an average-length HD movie. Using LLCD technology that time would be reduced to less than eight minutes.

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