Google may be floating the internet in balloons, but NASA is firing lasers between the moon and Earth, setting a new record in communications as it hunts an alternative to traditional radio. The Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) uses a pulsed laser beam to achieve 622 Mbps between a spacecraft orbiting the the moon and an Earth station at New Mexico, and could open the door to more data-rich communications supporting 3D video and higher-resolution images.
"Since NASA first ventured into space, it has relied on radio frequency (RF) communication" the space agency says. "However, RF is reaching its limit as demand for more data capacity continues to increase."
The space half of the project is hosted on the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), the robotic mission launched in early September to examine the moon's atmosphere. On the ground, meanwhile, are three stations: the primary terminal the the NASA White Sands Test Facility; NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab Table Mountain Optical Communications Technology Laboratory in California; and a Tenerife station operated by the European Space Agency.
All three use technology built by NASA and MIT, though there's no guarantee that the system will be picked up for future missions. "The goal of LLCD is to validate and build confidence in this technology so that future missions will consider using it," Don Cornwell, LLCD manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said of the testing.
Next up, once the LLCD is over, is a longer-term experiment called the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). Scheduled to begin in 2017, it will test laser comms not only for lunar use but across broader distances, as NASA probes and other craft explore further afield.