Optical communications, transmitting data using infrared lasers, could help NASA return more data to Earth than ever before. The benefits of this technology for exploration and geological missions are enormous. In support of a mission to demonstrate this technology, NASA recently completed the installation of its state-of-the-art optical ground station in Haleakala, Hawaii.
The state-of-the-art ground station, called Optical Ground Station 2 (OGS-2), is the second of two optical ground stations built that will collect data transmitted back to Earth using NASA’s Laser Relay Demonstration Demonstration (LCRD). Launched in early 2021, this groundbreaking mission will be the backbone of NASA’s first optical relay operating system.
This will be the first NASA relay system to fully utilize optical communications, giving the agency the opportunity to test the new communications method and learn valuable lessons from its implementation. Relay satellites provide important communication channels between scientific and research missions and the Earth, allowing them to transmit important data to scientists and mission leaders at home.
While optical communications offer many benefits for missions, they can be disrupted by atmospheric disturbances such as clouds. OGS-2 was selected for deployment in Hawaii due to clear skies, but bad weather could still hinder the project. On a cloudy day, LCRD will have to wait before transferring data. To avoid delays, services can be handed over to another ground station developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, OGS-1, located in California. To monitor cloud cover and determine the need for OGS-1, commercial partner Northrop Grumman provided an atmospheric monitoring station that monitors site weather conditions. This monitoring station operates almost autonomously 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The LCRD and OGS-2 will demonstrate the many possibilities of optical or laser communications for use as a repeater. Optical communications offer significant mission benefits, including 10 to 100 times faster data rates than comparable RF communications systems. This increase means higher-resolution data for missions, giving scientists a much more detailed view of our planet and solar system. The benefits also include reduced power consumption, size, and weight, which means longer battery life, more space for additional tools on the spacecraft, and potential cost savings on launch from lighter payloads.
Optical communications, thanks to the development of the LCRD and its two terrestrial terminals, could have far-reaching implications for future knowledge of the Earth and our solar system. Spacecraft equipped with optical communications systems will allow improved data such as high-definition video to be returned to Earth faster by increasing data rates. Thanks to this data, scientists will be able to get to know our Universe better and make exciting new discoveries.