Dec 07, 2021 2 mins, 42 secs

A $320 million NASA experiment to test high-speed laser communications links between Earth and space is poised for launch Tuesday, tagging along for a ride to geosynchronous orbit on a US Space Force mission aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

The NASA tech demo experiment is attached to the Space Force’s STPSat 6 satellite, the primary payload on an Atlas 5 rocket set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral during a two-hour launch window opening at 4:04 a.m.

NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, or LCRD mission, is embarking on a two-year series of experiments to test how optical communications links could help downlink large volumes of information faster than traditional radio-based communications systems.

Future data-hungry space missions, such as NASA’s Artemis missions to the moon and future Mars expeditions, will likely need laser communications links to transmit data back to Earth.

The laser experiment will break new ground in optical communications, according to NASA.

SpaceX’s Starlink internet network uses laser cross-links to allow internet traffic to leap from spacecraft to spacecraft, and the European Space Agency’s data relay system uses a similar optical communications architecture to collect imagery from Europe’s Copernicus environmental monitoring satellites.

Part of the LCRD experiment will involve collecting weather data at the Hawaii and California ground stations, according to Miriam Wennersten, ground segment manager on the LCRD mission at Goddard.

The LCRD payload on STPSat 6 consists of two optical communication terminals and a switching unit, allowing the instrument to receive a signal, transition the data to a transmitter, then beam the signal to its destination.

Next year, NASA plans to launch a laser communications terminal to the International Space Station on a commercial cargo ship, allowing LCRD to test out an optical link with a moving object speeding around Earth at 5 miles per second.

The laser terminals on the tech demo experiment will downlink data at a rate of 1.2 gigabits per second.

But the testing time on that experiment was limited because the laser payload was a secondary objective on the mission.

The LCRD experiment is led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center with support from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

NASA’s LCRD payload is one of nine hosted payloads mounted on the STPSat 6 spacecraft, which was built by Northrop Grumman for the military’s Space Test Program, which oversees many of the Defense Department’s experimental space missions.

STPSat 6 also has a payload for the National Nuclear Security Administration designed to detect nuclear detonations to verify international treaty compliance. The military hasn’t disclosed details for other experiments on the mission, but officials said they generally will test technologies related to space domain awareness, space weather monitoring, and communications.

The LCRD experiment was originally supposed to launch on a commercial communications spacecraft in 2016, but NASA switched the payload to a Space Force satellite.

Assuming the laser terminals are working well, NASA could transition the LCRD payload to operational use after the two-year primary mission.

Eventually, lessons learned from the laser communications experiment will be turned over to private industry.

NASA has launched a series of tracking and data relay satellites since the 1980s using radio frequencies to bridge data between mission control space shuttles and the space station.

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