The Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) used a pulsed laser beam to transfer data more than 239,000 miles between the moon and Earth. It's the first NASA system for two-way communication that uses a laser instead of radio waves. LLCD, developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory, is housed aboard NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), which launched in September from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The purpose of LADEE, a 160-day robotic mission, is to orbit the moon and gather detailed information about its delicate atmosphere. LADEE lifted off with a payload of three science instruments and the LLCD system. NASA anticipated that the laser communication system would achieve rates six times greater than today's radio communication systems. The agency said it was able to upload error-free data from a ground station in New Mexico to the orbiting LADEE spacecraft at a rate of 20 Mbps.
[ Learn more about NASA's moon mission. Read NASA's LADEE Moon Mission: 5 Goals. ]
For a long time NASA has relied on radio frequency for communications, but it's now reaching its limit due to demand for more data capacity. Badri Younes, NASA's deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation, said the high-data-rate laser communication system is the first step toward building the next generation of space communication capabilities, such as better image resolution and 3-D video transmission.
"We are encouraged by the results of the demonstration to this point, and we are confident we are on the right path to introduce this new capability into operational service soon," Younes said in a written statement.
Although LLCD is a short-duration experiment, NASA is planning another, longer-term demonstration, called Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). Scheduled to launch on a Loral commercial satellite in 2017, LCRD is NASA's initial long-duration optical communications mission. NASA believes a laser communications system will use less mass and power than a radio frequency system for the same data rate.
LCRD is part of the space agency's Technology Demonstration Missions Program, which is working to develop crosscutting technology capable of operating in space. The program oversees a portfolio of technology demonstration flight projects led by NASA centers and the agency's industry partners. In addition to LCRD, these projects include the Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC), Human Exploration Telerobotics (HET), and Solar Sail Demonstration (SSD).