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NASA Laser Beams in a Video From Orbit

Jun 09, 2014 03:37 PM EDT

NASA just beamed down a video from the International Space Station (ISS) using revolutionary laser-based technology that should make communication from orbit to Earth nearly instantaneous.

A 175-megabit, high-definition video of astronauts saying "hello, world!" from the ISS was sent to receivers on the Earth's surface Thursday, marking a first-of-its-kind use of the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS).

"It's incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station," Matt Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager, said in a NASA statement.

The OPALS project is part of a larger goal of NASA's to eventually have developed technology that will allow for safe and immediate communication in orbit and even in deep space. Just earlier this month, NASA presented the encouraging results of its Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD), which showcased the abilities of a laser-based communication system that can send information at exceptionally fast speeds to and from the Moon.

Last October, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which was involved with the LLCD, had project leader Don Boroson explain the importance of upgrading current radio-based space communication to laser-communication designs.

"It is generally agreed that present-day science and exploration missions to deep space are constrained by the amount of data they can get back to Earth," Boronson said.

He explained that traditional radio transmissions only boast a maximum transmission speed of about 100 megabits per second (Mbps). They are also restricted by their limited range and potential for astronomical interference. Laser technology, as seen in modern high-speed internet connections, could circumvent these problems.

"But it has been an elusive goal to bring laser communications techniques and systems to the point where they can actually deliver on their promises," Boronson added.

Now, however, between successful LLCD and OPALS tests, the advancement of communication technology looks close to reality.

According to NASA, the "Hello World" video took only 3.5 seconds to transmit. With traditional downlink methods, it would have taken an estimated 10 minutes. Now the team will move on to test the communication system's limits and capabilities.

"We look forward to experimenting with OPALS over the coming months in hopes that our findings will lead to optical communications capabilities for future deep space exploration missions," Abrahamson said.

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