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9/23/2011
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NASA Plans High-Speed Space Communications System

Agency plans to demonstrate the laser technology in 2016 to show it can transmit data from space up to 100 times faster than its current systems.

NASA, Microsoft Reveal Mars In Pictures
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Slideshow: NASA, Microsoft Reveal Mars In Pictures
NASA is working on a laser-based optical communications system that will drastically reduce the time it takes to transmit multimedia from space, with data moving at rates up to 100 times faster than current systems.

The space agency aims to show off a high-speed communications system through a Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) in 2016. LCRD is one of three next-generation space technologies NASA is working on as part of its plans to create more sophisticated solutions to meet goals for the future of its space program.

Now that NASA has retired its space shuttle program, the agency aims to send manned spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit and push the boundaries of current space communications, among other aims.

To the latter point, while it currently takes 90 minutes to transmit high-resolution images from Mars, LCRD will allow for actual streaming of high-definition video from distances beyond the moon, according to the space agency.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center came up the idea for the LCRD, which is now being developed by a cross-organizational team that also includes NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. NASA will fly the system into space on a commercial communications satellite developed by Space Systems/Loral.

Dave Israel, who is leading the team developing the network, compared current NASA space communications capability to dial-up Internet speeds. Just as the home Internet user "hit the wall" with that technology, he said in a statement that NASA "is approaching the limit of what its existing communications network can handle."

LCRD, on the other hand, will be more comparable to a land-based optical network such as FIOS from Verizon, Israel added.

NASA expects the demonstration--which will include telescopes, lasers, mirrors, detectors, a pointing and tracking system, control electronics, and two different types of modems--will be operational for two to three years.

Each modem will serve its own purpose, according to NASA. One is best suited for communicating with deep space missions or tiny, low-power smallsats in low-Earth orbit. The other will be able to handle much higher data rates, particularly from spacecrafts orbiting the earth, such as the International Space Station.

Once in demonstration, LCRD will work alongside NASA's existing radio-based network, which includes a team of tracking and data relay satellites that communicate with ground stations.

NASA also is developing another laser communications network for its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer that is expected to launch in 2013. However, that system will not operate at a speed as high as the agency plans for the LCRD system, and will operate for a much shorter time period.

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