NASA looks to photonics for space communications rather than RF: Page 2 of 3

October 24, 2016 // By Jean-Pierre Joosting
NASA looks to photonics for space communications rather than RF
Photonics may provide answers to some of the most pressing challenges in future spaceflight for NASA. One major NASA priority is to use lasers to make space communications for both near-Earth and deep-space missions more efficient. After more than 50 years of using solely RF, NASA is investing in new ways to increase data rates while also finding more efficient communications systems.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Glenn Research Center in Cleveland are also following up on LLCD's success, but both will focus on how laser communications could be implemented in deep-space missions.

Missions to deep space impose special communication challenges because of their distance from Earth. The data return on these missions slowly trickle back to the ground a little at a time using radio frequency. Laser communications could significantly improve data rates in all space regions, from low-Earth orbit to interplanetary.

JPL's concept, called Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC), focuses on laser communications' benefits to data rates and to space and power constraints on missions. The data-rate benefits of laser communications for deep-space missions are clear, but less recognized is that laser communications can also save mass, space and/or power requirements on missions. That could be monumental on missions like the James Webb Space Telescope, which is so large that, even folded, it will barely fit in the largest rocket currently available.

Although Webb is an extreme example, many missions today face size constraints as they become more complex. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission carried both types of communications systems, and the laser system was half the mass, required 25 percent less power and transferred data at six times the rate of the RF system. Laser communications could also benefit a class of missions called CubeSats, which are about the size of a shoebox. These missions are becoming more popular and require miniaturized parts, including communications and power systems.

Power requirements can become a major challenge on missions to the outer solar system. As spacecraft move away from the sun, solar power becomes less viable, so the less power a payload requires, the smaller the spacecraft battery, saving space, and the easier spacecraft components can be recharged.

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