NASA successfully tests laser space transmissions

'Hello, World!' video beamed from space station to Earth in 3.5 seconds

"Hello, World!" That's the title of the high-definition video that NASA successfully transmitted 260 miles from the International Space Station to Earth using a new laser communications instrument.

The 175-megabit communication was the first test of NASA's Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science, also known as OPALS. The space agency is trying out methods for deep space communications that can carry more load and do it more quickly than scientists can today with traditional radio transmissions.

"The International Space Station is a test bed for a host of technologies that are helping us increase our knowledge of how we operate in space and enable us to explore even farther into the solar system," said Sam Scimemi, the space station's division director at NASA, in a statement. "Using the space station to investigate ways we can improve communication rates with spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit is another example of how the orbital complex serves as a stepping stone to human deep space exploration."

Using a 2.5-watt, 1,550-nanometer laser, NASA reported that OPALS was able to transmit the video in 3.5 seconds. Transmitting it with a traditional radio would have taken more than 10 minutes.

The laser communications achieved a maximum data transmission rate of 50 megabits per second.

The initial test of the laser system conducted late last week was the first of what is expected to be several tests over the next few months.

"It's incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station," said Matt Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager. "We look forward to experimenting with OPALS over the coming months in hopes that our findings will lead to optical communications capabilities for future deep space exploration missions."

A SpaceX cargo spacecraft carried the equipment needed for the laser communications test to the space station in April.

Optical laser communications are one of the emerging technologies NASA is testing. The new laser communications initiative is a key part of the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is focused on developing technology for future space missions, as well as for life on Earth.

Last October, for instance, NASA launched a lunar probe that tested what could eventually become an outer space Internet.

NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory ran what the space agency called a limited test of a high-data-rate laser communication system. It was the agency's first laser communications test.

As with OPALS, systems like the LADEE system could be used to speed up future deep space communications with robots and human exploration crews.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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