NASA experiment sends 1st-ever data via laser far beyond Moon

 NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment, aboard the recently launched Psyche spacecraft, has achieved “first light,” sending data via laser to and from far beyond the moon for the first time, the agency has said.

While optical communication has been demonstrated in low Earth orbit and out to the moon, DSOC is the first test in deep space.

DSOC experiment, which could transform how spacecraft communicate, has beamed a near-infrared laser encoded with test data from nearly 16 million kilometres away — about 40 times farther than the moon is from Earth — to the Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California. This is the farthest-ever demonstration of optical communications, the US space agency said.

The DSOC is configured to send high-bandwidth test data to Earth during its two-year technology demonstration as Psyche travels to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

The tech demo achieved “first light” in the early hours of November 14 after its flight laser transceiver — a cutting-edge instrument aboard Psyche capable of sending and receiving near-infrared signals — locked onto a powerful uplink laser beacon transmitted from the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory at JPL’s Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, California.

The uplink beacon helped the transceiver aim its downlink laser back to Palomar (which is 130 kilometres, south of Table Mountain) while automated systems on the transceiver and ground stations fine-tuned its pointing.

“Achieving first light is one of many critical DSOC milestones in the coming months, paving the way toward higher-data-rate communications capable of sending scientific information, high-definition imagery, and streaming video in support of humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars,” said Trudy Kortes, director of Technology Demonstrations at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Test data also was sent simultaneously via the uplink and downlink lasers, a procedure known as “closing the link” that is a primary objective for the experiment. While the technology demonstration isn’t transmitting Psyche mission data, it works closely with the Psyche mission-support team to ensure DSOC operations don’t interfere with those of the spacecraft.

“Tuesday morning’s test was the first to fully incorporate the ground assets and flight transceiver, requiring the DSOC and Psyche operations teams to work in tandem,” said Meera Srinivasan, operations lead for DSOC at JPL.

“It was a formidable challenge, and we have a lot more work to do, but for a short time, we were able to transmit, receive, and decode some data.”

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