Why a NASA spacecraft fired a laser at Earth, and why it is a big deal

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Why a NASA spacecraft fired a laser at Earth, and why it is a big deal

  • Recently, NASA's Psyche spacecraft, en route to a metal-rich asteroid orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, successfully transmitted a laser signal to Earth.
  • The asteroid is believed to be the nickel-iron core of an early planet, providing insights into Earth's iron core.

Challenges in Space Communication

  • Communicating with distant spacecraft poses challenges, particularly in data rates.
  • Current space communication mainly relies on radio waves having the highest wave lengths but lowest frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum.
    • However, data transmission at high bandwidths is desirable for faster data transfer.

NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) Experiment

  • Utilises near-infrared laser signals for communication, providing data rates at least 10 times higher than current radio telecommunications systems.
  • Psyche spacecraft is the first to carry a DSOC transceiver, testing high-bandwidth optical communications to Earth during its journey.
  • The technology relies on
    • Extremely precise pointing
    • Isolation from spacecraft vibrations
    • Compensation for changing positions
    • New signal-processing techniques

Future Implications for Space Travel

  • DSOC's advancements pave the way for high-bandwidth communications far beyond the Moon and over 1,000 times farther than any previous optical communications test.
  • Improved communication technology is crucial for future space exploration, including sending humans to Mars.