Pew! Pew! Laser On The Space Station Will Beam Video To Earth

Videos will beam to Earth on a laser beam in a technology demonstration coming to the International Space Station soon, says NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Optical PAyload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) plans to move videos from space to an Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory in Wrightwood, Calif. Each demonstration test will last about 100 seconds, while the station and the ground receiver can “see” each other.

While the experiment sounds awesome for sending back “home videos” from space, NASA is more touting it as a boon for transferring loads of scientific data back to Earth.

“The scientific instruments in near-Earth and deep-space missions increasingly require higher communication rates to transmit their gathered data back to Earth or to support high-data-rate applications (e.g., high-definition video streams),” stated the OPALS webpage at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Optical communications (also referred to as ‘lasercomm’) is an emerging technology wherein data is modulated onto laser beams, which offers the promise of much higher data rates than what is achievable with radio-frequency (RF) transmissions.”

How the Optical PAyload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) experiment will work on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The experiment page (last updated in May) says it is intended to work for about a year, with the current Expedition 37/38 and forthcoming 39/40 crews. That said, it appears the payload is not aboard station yet.

A July update from NASA said the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft is supposed to ferry OPALS to space. There hasn’t been a Dragon flight since that time, but SpaceX is listing one more for 2013 on its launch manifest.

Diagram of the Optical PAyload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) experiment. It includes three elements: (1) a sealed container that includes the laser, a power board and avionics (2) an optical gimbal transceiver that has an uplink camera, and laser collimater for downlink (3) a Flight Releasable Attachment Mechanism (FRAM), a mechanical and electrical link to the International Space Station and launch vehicle. Credit: NASA

Laser communication hit headlines earlier this fall when the NASA Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) sent a packet of information by laser from the moon, breaking records in terms of download rate (622 megabits per second).

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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