NASA is using lasers for a record-breaking 622 Mb of data per second between the moon and earth as a part of its Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD). Pulsed laser beams were shot from ground control at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico to the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) satellite orbiting the moon, and the results could herald promising new advances in deep space communication. Radio waves have long been the go-to option for sending information between spacecraft and our planet, but the greater data capacity lasers can accommodate may make it possible for future missions to send higher resolution images and 3D video transmissions across two-way channels.
Compared to the days of dial-up, today's web-sites load at lightning speed. Just like you need your web-pages load quickly and securely, NASA scientists and engineers want the same quick connectivity with their data-gathering spacecraft. To meet these demands NASA is moving away from their form of dial-up (radio frequency-based communication), to their own version of high-speed Internet; using laser communications.
NASA is venturing into a new era of space communications using laser communications technology and it's starting with the LLCD mission. For decades NASA has launched and operated satellites in order to expand our understanding of Earth and space science. In order to sustain this vision, satellites have increased their data-capturing capabilities and have had to send data over greater distances. Each of these advancements have required increases to data downlink rates and higher data volumes. Just as your home computer struggled to download large multimedia files in the past, NASA's communication networks may soon reach the same complications as data volumes continue to grow. In an effort to address these challenges and enhance the Agency's communications capabilities, NASA has directed the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) to lead the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD).
The LLCD mission consists of space-based and ground-based components. The Lunar Laser Space Terminal (LLST) is an optical communications test payload flying aboard the LADEE Spacecraft. The LLST is demonstrating laser communications using a data-downlink rate that is five-times the current communication capabilities from lunar orbit. The ground segment consists of three ground terminals that will perform high-rate communication with the LLST aboard LADEE. The primary ground terminal, the Lunar Laser Ground Terminal (LLGT) is located in White Sands, NM and was developed by MIT/Lincoln Laboratory and NASA. The ground segment also includes two secondary terminals located at NASA/JPL's Table Mountain Facility in California and the European Space Agency's La Teide Observatory in Tenerife, Spain.