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NASA to Launch Laser Comms Demo for Spacecraft, Earth Connectivity

NASA plans to launch a technology demonstration of laser communications systems  designed to increase the speed of data transmission between space vehicles and ground terminals.

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration will be deployed in summer 2019 as part of a two- to five-year mission that seeks to help NASA learn ways to operate laser communications systems, the space agency said Wednesday.

“LCRD is the next step in implementing NASA’s vision of using optical communications for both near-Earth and deep space missions,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator of NASA’s space technology mission directorate.

A laser communications system works to transmit data through a beam of light and provide 10 to 100 times higher data rates as well as lower size, weight and power requirements than current radio-frequency communications platforms, NASA noted.

Don Cornwell, director of the advanced communication and navigation division within NASA’s space communications and navigation program office, said the agency currently designs a laser terminal for the International Space Station that will use LCRD to transmit data from ISS to the ground at a data transfer rate of one gigabit per second.

Cornwell added the agency aims to launch the terminal in 2021 aboard other Earth-orbiting NASA missions to relay data through LCRD.

LCRD builds on the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration mission that worked to validate laser communications beyond low-Earth orbit in 2013.

The new technology demonstration will test the operational longevity and reliability of laser communications as well as capabilities in various environmental conditions and scenarios.

NASA will also deploy two ground terminals in California and Hawaii to demonstrate communications to and from LCRD.

The platform has transitioned to the integration and test stage after passing a key decision point review, the agency noted.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center leads the LCRD project and its partners include Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory.

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