Pioneering the next era of laser satellite communications


NASA's ILLUMA-T payload communicates with the LCRD

NASA’s ILLUMA-T payload communicates with the LCRD via laser signals. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan

NASA ILLUMA-T will soon be published in International Space StationWith the aim of enhancing laser communications in space. Working with the previously launched LCRD, this system promises faster data transfer rates using infrared light. The ILLUMA-T launch, tests, and demonstrations build on past missions, driving forward NASA’s vision for advanced laser communications in future space endeavours.

NASA uses the International Space Station (ISS)—a football field-sized spacecraft orbiting Earth—to learn more about living and working in space. For more than 20 years, the space station has provided a unique platform for investigation and research in areas such as biology, technology, agriculture, and more. It serves as a home for astronauts conducting experiments, including developing NASA’s space communications capabilities.

NASA ILLUMA-T payload in Goddard's clean room

NASA ILLUMA-T payload in the Goddard cleanroom. The payload will be installed on the International Space Station and higher data rates will be demonstrated by NASA’s Laser Communications Relay demonstration. Credit: Denise Henry

In 2023, NASA will send a technology demonstration known as NASA Low Earth Orbit LCRD User Modem and Speaker Station (ILLUMA-T) to the space station. Together, ILLUMA-T and the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which launched in December 2021, will complete NASA’s first comprehensive, two-way laser relay system.

With NASA’s ILLUMA-T Satellite communications and navigation (SCaN) The program office will demonstrate the power of laser communications from the space station. Using invisible infrared light, laser communication systems transmit and receive information at higher data rates. With higher data rates, missions can send more images and videos back to Earth in a single transmission. Once installed on the space station, ILLUMA-T will demonstrate the benefits that higher data rates can provide for missions in low Earth orbit.

Expert insights and additional benefits

ILLUMA-T photovoltaic module

Close-up of the ILLUMA-T photovoltaic module covered in a protective casing. Credit: NASA/Denise Henry

“Laser communications provide missions with greater flexibility and a quick way to retrieve data from space,” said Badri Younes, former associate deputy administrator for NASA’s SCaN program. “We are incorporating this technology in demonstrations near Earth, on the Moon, and in deep space.”

In addition to higher data rates, laser systems are lighter and use less energy, which is a key advantage when designing spacecraft. ILLUMA-T is about the size of a standard refrigerator and will be attached to an external module on the space station for its LCRD demonstration.

LCRD is currently demonstrating the benefits of a laser relay in geosynchronous orbit — 22,000 miles from Earth — by transmitting data between two ground stations and conducting experiments to improve NASA’s laser capabilities.

“Once ILLUMA-T reaches the space station, the station will send high-resolution data, including images and video, to the LCRD at a rate of 1.2 gigabits per second,” said Matt Magsamin, deputy project manager for ILLUMA-T. Then, data from the LCRD will be transmitted to ground stations in Hawaii and California. This demonstration will show how laser communications can benefit missions in low Earth orbit.

Launch and initial operations

ILLUMA-T is being launched as a payload SpaceXNASA’s 29th Commercial Resupply Services mission. For the first two weeks after launch, ILLUMA-T will be removed from the box of the Dragon spacecraft for installation on the station roof. Convertible Japanese Experience Facility (JEM-EF), also known as “Kibo” – meaning “hope” in Japanese.

After the payload is installed, the ILLUMA-T team will conduct initial tests and on-orbit checks. Once completed, the team will pass the payload’s first light—a critical event as the mission transmits the first laser beam through the optical telescope to the LCRD.

Once first light arrives, laser data and communications experiments will begin and continue for the duration of the planned mission.

NASA's laser communications roadmap

NASA’s Laser Communications Roadmap. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan

Laser testing in different scenarios

In the future, operational laser communications will complement the radio frequency systems that most space missions use today to send data home. ILLUMA-T is not the first mission to test laser communications in space, but it does bring NASA closer to operational implementation of this technology.

Apart from the LCRD, previous releases include the ILLUMA-T 2022 TeraByte InfraRed Delivery System, which is currently testing laser communications on a small CubeSat in low Earth orbit; the Lunar laser communication demonstrationwhich transmitted data to and from lunar orbit to Earth and back during Mission to explore the lunar atmosphere and dust environment in 2014; and 2017 Lasercomm Sciences Optical PayloadWhich showed how laser communications can speed up the flow of information between Earth and space compared to radio signals.

Goddard's ILLUMA-T team

The Goddard ILLUMA-T team in front of the payload in the cleanroom. Credit: NASA/Denise Henry

Testing the ability of laser communications to produce higher data rates in a variety of scenarios will help the aerospace community improve capability for future missions to the Moon. Marsand deep space.

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