Hoping to make the next jump in space communications technology, NASA has planned for a three-year test of a laser communications system on a future satellite mission. The test will will involve the construction of two Earth-based laser stations, and could pave the way for far greater communication capability through space than we have now.
The goal of the test is to prove that the technology for such a communication system exists, and also to develop the best methodologies for using it. For instance, because Earthly atmospheric conditions can interrupt laser communications, NASA will test how well they can move data reception from one tracking station to another and store data onboard the spacecraft until the skies clear. The end result of the test could lead to high-definition imagery from a Mars rover in near real-time or, thanks to the laser’s small size, more capable microsatellites.
While the lasers are taking up the bulk of a $175 million to develop new technology testbeds, two other programs are going forward as well. The first is a deep space atomic clock, which might help form the basis of a space navigation system similar to GPS. Second is a solar sail, a propulsion system that uses electromagnetic solar “wind” as propulsion. It’s important to note that all of these technologies have far-reaching implications, perhaps a sign that NASA is taking its new role as a deep space leader seriously. The laser communication project is expected to take flight within about four years.