NASA is getting ready to conduct its first optical communications experiment aboard the ISS orbiting the Earth. The experiment is called the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science or OPALS. The experiment payload will head to the ISS aboard the SpaceX mission set to launch to the station on April 14.
NASA is looking for ways to improve the communication of data from the ISS back to Earth as file sizes for content like HD video streaming from the ISS continues to increase. The experiment will try to send data back to Earth using laser beams that promise much higher data rates than existing technology supports.
The technology used in the experiment operates in a frequency band that is unregulated by the FCC. If the experiment is successful, this laser technology could be used for deep space missions in the future. NASA says that its current deep space missions transmit data at 200 to 400 Kbps. OPALS tech will offer data transmission speeds at up to 50 Mbps.
A future deep space optical communications system will push the transfer rates for data up to over 1 Gbps for data sent from Mars. NASA says that the OPALS system will be like upgrading from dial-up to DSL in your home. OPALS tech will be aboard the SpaceX mission that is taking other supplies to the station. OPALS uses off the shelf hardware that is enclosed in a pressurized container. The OPLAS system was first announced in February 2013.