NASA to Test Laser Communications System

[/caption]Quite often, communication rates with remote spacecraft have been a limiting factor when exploring our solar system. For example, it can take up to 90 minutes to transfer one high-resolution image from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to scientists on Earth.

Improving data communication rates would allow scientists to collect additional data from future missions to Mars, Titan or other destinations in our solar system.

How does NASA plan to overcome the current limitations in communication with spacecraft outside Earth orbit?

One of three recently announced technology demonstrations, The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, will help demonstrate and validate laser-based communications. One of many goals for the LCRD is to provide spacecraft in Earth orbit ( and beyond ) a faster and reliable method of communication than standard radio communications currently in use.

A laser-based communication will allow NASA and other government agencies to perform missions that require higher data rates. In the cases where less data is required, the laser-based systems would consume less power, mass and precious volume inside a spacecraft. Given roughly equal mass, power, and volume, the laser-based communications system offers much higher data rates than a radio-based communications system.

NASA’s goals for the LCRD are to:

Enable reliable, capable, and cost effective optical communications technologies for near earth applications and provide the next steps required toward optical communications for deep space missions

Demonstrate high data rate optical communications technology necessary for:

  • Near-Earth spacecraft (bi-directional links supporting hundreds of Mbps to Gbps)
  • Deep Space missions (tens to hundreds of Mbps from distances such as Mars and Jupiter)
  • Develop, validate and characterize operational models for practical optical communications
  • Identify and develop requirements and standards for future operational optical communication systems
  • Establish a strong partnership with multiple government agencies to facilitate crosscutting infusion of optical communications technologies
  • Develop the industrial base and transfer technology for future space optical communications systems
  • High-rate communications 10-100 times more capable than current radio systems will also allow for greatly improved connectivity and enable new generations of remote missions that are far more capable than today’s missions. NASA’s LCRD will also provide the satellite communication industry with technology not available today. Laser-based space communications will enable missions to use high-definition video and and pave the way for a possible “virtual presence” on a remote planet or other bodies in the solar system.

    While the laser-based communications technology featured in the LCRD will allow more data to be sent from spacecraft to scientists on Earth, the communication delays (a few seconds for the Moon, and over twenty minutes for Mars) will still require careful mission planning.

    Diagram of LCRD mission. Image Credit: NASA

    The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) is led by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) office in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate is collaborating with the NASA Office of the Chief Technologist in sponsoring this technology demonstration.

    If you’d like to learn more about NASA’s LCRD, you can read more at:

    Source: NASA Technology Demonstration Updates

    Commercial Space Roundup

    By all reports – commercial space is thriving. A number of recent announcements show that the burgeoning “private” space industry is thriving. NASA released its plans to obtain transportation services for its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) as well as optional milestones for the Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2).

    “This is a significant step forward in America’s amazing story of space exploration,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “It’s further evidence we are committed to fully implementing our plan — as laid out in the Authorization Act — to outsource our space station transportation so NASA can focus its energy and resources on deep space exploration.”

    To help speed up the process Bolden has stated that NASA will fund some of the original milestones that have already been negotiated as part of some of the Space Act Agreements (SAA) under CCDev2.

    NASA’s proposal outlines contracts that would benefit multiple firms that are set to provide the space agency with designs of spacecraft, rockets and other launch services. This contract is worth an estimated $1.61 billion and is currently slated to run from July 2012 through April 2014. NASA has updated Sierra Nevada Corporation’s SAA with four more milestones – that total up to $25.6 million meaning that the contract that this NewSpace firm now has with NASA is worth $105.6 million – if the agency can successfully accomplish all of its milestones.

    “All four CCDev2 partners are performing very well and meeting their milestones,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development. “These additional milestones were selected because they sufficiently accelerated the development of commercial crew transportation systems to justify additional NASA investment.”

    The Spacecraft Company opened an assembly facility at Mojave Air and Space Port to build Virgin Galactic spaceships. Photo Credit: Mark Greenberg

    Meanwhile, out in California, The Spaceship Company (TSC), the joint venture of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, announced a milestone of their own with the opening of its Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar (FAITH), at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The hangar, which cost an estimated $8 million, supports the final stages of Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. It is hoped that this new facility will both support further commercial space ventures and create jobs.

    The facility is located on taxiway-B and encompasses approximately 68,000-square-feet. It will be used to assemble, prepare and test the vehicles. One of the building’s other roles is that of maintenance hangar.

    “We take great pride in the opening of FAITH as an accomplishment for our company, our current and future customers and our industry,” said The Spaceship Company Vice President, Operations Enrico Palermo. “Within this new facility, we will produce the highest quality commercial spaceflight systems.”

    With FAITH in place, the required infrastructure is now in place to manufacture a fleet of SpaceShipTwo (SS2) sub-orbital spaceships as well as the WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) carrier aircraft. The facility has been sized to support construction of SS2 and WK2 with room to build two of each of these craft – at the same time.

    The other structure that is needed to support SS2 and WK2 operations is a 48,000-square-foot building that is located at the Mojave Air and Space Port that TSC has recently had upgraded. If the sub-orbital space tourism market takes off TSC has optioned rights to expand the facility.

    “Despite the current state of the U.S. economy and rising unemployment, this is a strong time of growth for The Spaceship Company,” Palermo said. “We are creating excellent, high-skilled job opportunities for individuals with aerospace, engineering and hands-on space program experience. We want employees who are passionate about developing new and innovative ways of accessing space.”

    The SXC has signed a lease for the Lynx (tail number 2) sub-orbital space plane. Image Credit: XCOR

    Staying on the topic of sub-orbital space planes, Space Expedition Curaçao (SXC) and XCOR Aerospace, Inc. have announced the completion of a deal that will secure the wet lease of production Lynx tail number two for operation on the Caribbean island of Curaçao.

    “Since we signed the initial Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in October of 2010, XCOR and SXC have worked diligently towards completing the Definitive Agreement,” explained XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “Now that the ink is dry and the check has cleared we can proceed at full pace to begin operations in Curaçao in 2014.”

    Since the first flights of SpaceShipOne high above the Mojave Desert, the commercial space industry has found its legs and has expanded its reach both nationally and internationally. With Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) plans to launch its next Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station in November the commercial space field appears to be cementing its beachhead on not only sub-orbital flights – but orbital ones as well.

    Two Into The Blue: One Engineer’s Gemini Reflections

    It is probably one of the least understood, but most crucial, (in terms of landing a man on the Moon) programs in U.S. space flight history. After just fifteen minutes in space (and all of it sub-orbital) President John F. Kennedy tasked NASA with sending astronauts to the lunar surface. NASA completed the Mercury Program and moved on to Gemini, which had a crew of two and would work to teach NASA the most basic elements of space flight.

    Extravehicular activity (EVA), rendezvous and dealing with the microgravity environment were all issues tackled by NASA on the Gemini Program. Gemini was essentially NASA’s “classroom” – teaching the space agency the lessons needed to fly to the Moon.

    Most books on Gemini follow the basic path, an overall of all spaceflight efforts and then a chronological history of the program and how it taught NASA how to live and work in space. Two into the Blue – breaks from this mold and tells the Gemini story from one engineer’s perspective, sharing along the way his thoughts and feelings during this time.

    Two Into The Blue is published by Xlibris Corp and provides a fresh perspective on the Gemini missions. Image Credit: Xlibris Corp/

    Two into the Blue is written by Robert L. Adcock, published by Xlibris Corp and weighs in at a light 142 pages. Adcock worked for about 36 years within the Aerospace Industry, his earliest experiences coincided with the development of rockets and the spacecraft that were among the first that the U.S. sent into orbit. Adcock grew up in Tennessee, graduated from the University with a BSEE and followed with a Doctorate in Business Administration that he received from Florida State in 1977.

    Two into the Blue details Adcock’s experiences during this crucial time for the U.S. space program. The book is largely written from his perspective, telling his experiences during NASA’s Gemini years. Given that most books discussing the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo Programs are essentially identical in format makes Two into the Blue a welcome departure with new details and fresh stories. Adcock participated in some capacity every one of the Gemini Program’s ten flights.

    Each of the Gemini missions was dedicated to techniques that would pave the way for the Apollo flights to the Moon. Without the Gemini series of missions, NASA would never have been able to learn all of the techniques needed to send a man to the Moon and return him safely to the Earth. Despite its vital role, Gemini is largely forgotten by most of the general public today. With NASA’s current future uncertain, this book allows one to look back to a time when the U.S. crewed space flight program’s future was bright.

    Two into the Blue is a short read, but it is a great book for someone preparing to take a trip and who will be stuck in an airport or in a car. It’s also great for space enthusiasts seeking to find out more about the Gemini Program and the history that surrounded these important missions.

    The Gemini Program followed the single-man Mercury flights, sending two astronauts to orbit and preparing NASA for trips to the Moon. Photo Credit:

    China To Launch Space Station Module Prototype


    China’s space program is in the news again, this time with unconfirmed reports that the Tiangong 1 space lab may be launching into orbit sometime this year – possibly later this month.  Previous news reports cited potential launch dates in 2010 or 2011,  so this launch isn’t too far behind schedule.

    What plans does China have for their first orbital space station prototype?

    The space lab, named “Tiangong” translates from Mandarin Chinese into English as “Heavenly Palace”.  Weighing just under 9 tons, the prototype module will orbit for two years. China will use the module to practice docking maneuvers and test orbital technologies during the module’s lifetime.

    China plans to follow the Tiangong 1 orbital lab with two more lab launches over the next few years to continue testing systems and technologies before starting construction on their own space station in the 2020’s.  Based on China’s current plans, the Tiangong orbital labs will not be used in the Chinese space station.

    Artists rendering of a Tiangong module performing a docking procedure with a Shenzhou spacecraft. Image Credit: China Manned Space Engineering Office

    Many space analysts believe China’s lack of a perceived “space race” is a potential reason for the country’s slow, methodical space program build-up.  So far, China has only launched three manned space flights:  Shenzhou 5 and Shenzhou 6 ( 2003 and 2005, respectively). China’s first mission to include a spacewalk was Shenzhou 7 (2008).

    While China is making great strides with their manned space program, there are no current plans to include China in the ongoing International Space Station project.  Despite several political and technological issues preventing China’s participation in the ISS, recent comments from officials at the China National Space Administration have indicated a willingness to allow other countries to visit the country’s space station once it is operational.

    If you’d like to learn more, Universe Today has previous coverage (Jan. 2010) on the Tiangong mission at:

    You can also visit the China National Space Administration’s website at:

    Chasing Rockets, Chasing History: One Journalist’s Video Reflections

    CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. – As one might imagine covering the space program is a exciting vocation. Some professionals focus on writing articles or taking pictures others work with television stations or online media outlets to provide video and commentary. I have selected to attempt to do all of the above. This can be rather challenging. During the final launch of Atlantis for example, I conducted interviews with a variety of guests up until the launch, from there I operated two camcorders and a DSLR camera (for stills).

    Doing things this way provides outlets with a wealth of different types of content to choose from. This also means that a lot of material is not used. This article will cover some of the things that ended up on the cutting room floor. What was not used – might surprise you.

    SpaceX Surprises

    Of the NewSpace organizations that have made their presence known out at Kennedy Space Center – Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX has had the most significant impact. Lately the firm has worked to get the media out, as much as possible, to see what the company is doing. NASA and many of the established aerospace companies have a hands off approach – essentially you report on what they allow you to report. SpaceX? They allowed this reporter to climb underneath the Falcon 9 and even have it spun on command. Check it out:

    Shuttle Memories

    Trying to accurately record and report the historic nature of what took place at Kennedy Space Center this summer was challenging. I took every opportunity I could to record what was happening and then relay that to the public. What I will always remember from this time was how open the members of NASA were and how they really tried to work with you to get the story out. To get a taste of what it was like, check out this compilation of shuttle videos from STS-133 through STS-135:


    Whilst following the shuttle, the last two years have been punctuated by a number of awesome unmanned flights as well (not including the launch of the Falcon 9 which you can see above). The second OTV space plane, SBIRS, AEHF-1 and an impressive night launch of a Delta IV Heavy all helped to keep me on the road to Cape Canaveral:

    Memorable Interviews

    I’ve been privileged to interview many important people within the space community. That however does not mean that their interviews will stick out in my mind. Some of the ones that I remember best are from people that have always been a joy to work with. Stephanie Stilson is one of those people, she always has a kind word and a great quote. Greg Johnson is another, bombastic and easy-going, he has no problem whatsoever veering off of the official NASA script. To separate the two interviews I included a clip of the media being escorted up onto LC39A. Click below to watch:

    Experiencing History

    It is not every day that one gets to train along with the astronauts. I had the opportunity to do so on STS-135. I flew in the back of the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) as Commander Chris Ferguson practiced landing the shuttle. To date, this has to be the high point of my career:

    Over the last two years I have been bombarded by folks stating that I should report things “their” way. Some want me to go hyper-technical, so that only an engineer could understand what I was saying. While I’m sure some folks wouldn’t mind breaking out a flight manual to keep up with the jargon – that really isn’t what I’m trying to accomplish. Others tell me to keep it as simple as possible and to never state anything that could be construed as negative – but that doesn’t reflect reality. I try to come in somewhere in the middle. The public should know that this is a highly technical endeavor – but they should also know that it is exciting, that this tale is not one without issues and that I try to show it all, the good, the bad and the awesome.

    One On One With Space Shuttle Program’s First Pilot, Robert Crippen

    CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. – The shuttle program has drawn to a close. Present at the final flight was one of the two men who rode fire on the very first shuttle mission – Robert Crippen. He sat down and shared his thoughts and perspectives with Universe Today regarding this turning point in aerospace history.

    Crippen’s space flight career began alongside moonwalker John Young, who served as commander of STS-1. The orbiter for that flight was Columbia and the mission lasted about two days. Despite the mission’s brief time on-orbit it has come to be known as one of the most audacious test flights in aviation history.

    Crippen would go on to fly three more missions on board the shuttle on missions STS-7, STS-41C and STS-41G. He would eventually become the Kennedy Space Center Director from 1992 until 1995 before working in the private sector.

    Crippen spoke about one of his current efforts, working with the Coalition for Space Exploration to inspire students to follow careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Photo Credit: Jim Siegel - STS-1 image courtesy of NASA.

    Universe Today: Thanks for talking with us today.

    Crippen: Thanks for having me.

    Universe Today: How do you think people will view the legacy of the shuttle program?

    Crippen: “You never really know what history is going to say, but when I look back I’m really proud of the shuttle, its done revolutionary things, not just satellites, and the Hubble Space Telescope, but also the International Space Station, just accomplishment after accomplishment – but we had our share of tragedies as well. When I think of what people will think I always go back to a ‘Brooks and Dunn’ song – ‘You’re going to miss me when I am gone.”

    Crippen would go on to command three more shuttle missions, including STS-7, the first flight of a U.S. female astronaut - Sally Ride. Image Credit: NASA

    Universe Today: The shuttle that is launching today, is it all that different from what you flew on STS-1?

    Crippen: “Airline pilots used to come up and tell us that their planes were better than the shuttle,” Crippen said. “You have to understand why they were saying that, when the shuttle first flew the gauges had little metal arms in them and the shuttle was still using cathode ray tubes – so yes, it is very different from I first flew on in 1981.”

    Universe Today: What was it like on that first mission? Did you think with all the new technology and this completely new way of launching to orbit that you were going to go when you did?

    Crippen: “I honestly didn’t think we were even going to launch when we did. But when those solids lit I had no doubt in my mind that we were going someplace! The best part was that John’s blood pressure stayed really low, like at around 90 and mine was really high, it was up around 130. All John had to say was that he was too old and his blood pressure wouldn’t go any faster.”

    Crippen was not sure that his first flight in 1981 would even take place when it did, when the solid rocket boosters ignited however - all doubt was erased from his mind. Photo Credit: Mike Deep for Universe Today - Inset: Marcus Kilman

    Universe Today: Bob you work with the Coalition for Space Exploration (CSE) this organization has put out a couple of well-produced Public Service Announcements lately, what are they about and why are they being released now?

    Crippen: “Well, these PSAs try to focus on what I call the ‘spin-offs’ of the space shuttle program. The program has helped to produce or improve everything from heart pumps, how to rescue people out of vehicles after accidents and those types of things which, while important, one of the really important things that the space program does – is inspire.”

    Universe Today: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, we know that you have a pretty tight schedule.

    Crippen: No problem, it was my pleasure.

    Crippen was kept very busy on launch day and soon he was off to another interview. As he headed out he turned and stated that he was proud that part of STS-1 (one of the Solid Rocket Booster segments) was flying on this final shuttle mission, he also made a prophetic comment concerning the weather. “You never know how the Florida weather is going to work, but I have a good feeling about today.” Less than an hour later, the final space shuttle mission thundered off of the launch pad – and into history.

    Crippen hinted that Florida weather could surprise you. He was correct, despite some last minute drama, the final shuttle mission soared off into the sky. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

    Burt Rutan’s Race To Space: A Primer For Things To Come


    Voyager, Proteus and SpaceShipOne have become aerospace legends. As has the man who established them all – Burt Rutan. Zenith Press has released a chronicle of the man and his machines entitled Burt Rutan’s Race to Space: The Magician of Mojave and His Flying Innovations. The book provides a chronicle of all the air and spacecraft that have soared off of Rutan’s blueprints and into reality.

    The book’s first main segment is a large section which is essentially a catalog of the numerous craft that Rutan has produced over the decades. Many of the flying machines have their unique characteristics highlighted within the 160 pages of this book. Fear not, this tome is wallpapered with images – most of which are color (175 color images to 55 black and white).

    SpaceShipOne now hangs in the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. - between the Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1. Photo Credit: Scaled Composites

    Some of the most interesting of these images are not the glossy stills of air or spacecraft in action but rather the simple drawings that are done by the man himself. These sketches, some little more than cartoons others just simplistic line-drawings, highlight the genius that is Rutan and provide an insight into how his mind works.

    The nature of the book changes somewhat when one reaches the chapter entitled, “The Scaled Composites Years.” From this point on, the book’s focus narrows to concentrate on Rutan’s X-PRIZE efforts – and beyond.

    Rutan's dreams of flight started at an early age. He was a child when he first began crafting airplanes out of wood. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

    The book was written by Dan Linehan and is his second detailing the efforts of Rutan and Scaled Composites (the first was SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History). In short, the freelance writer is steeped in all things Rutan. Whereas his first work on the subject covered the history-making flight of SpaceShipOne, this effort is a general overview of Rutan and his legacy. But be forewarned, there are many projects that span the entire realm of aerospace that Rutan and company have been involved with that might surprise you.

    Given that the Mojave “magician” has retired recently – this book is timely, enjoyable and acts as a wonderful window into the mind of the man that has revolutionized flight. SpaceShipTwo continues to successfully complete test after test – making Burt Rutan’s Race to Space a primer for things to come. The book retails for $30, and it is well-worth the price and will be a welcome addition to any space buff’s collection.

    SpaceShipTwo being carried underneath White Knight Two is currently being tested in preparation to send average citizens into suborbital space. Photo Credit: Virgin Galactic

    End of the Shuttle Era: Q & A With Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach


    CAPE CANAVERAL Fla. – He has been with the shuttle program for the past three decades and has witnessed both its tragedies and its triumphs. NASA’s Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach reflected on the end of the shuttle era when interviewed this week. He talked a bit about his plans for the future as well as what he thinks people can expect from both him and his team on launch day.

    Q: The Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT) for STS-135 has just wrapped up, is this is a period of accelerated work for you and your team or is this a time when you can catch your breath?

    Leinbach: “This TCDT was a little different; we had a very busy period getting the crew
    ready for this mission. On July 4 we’ll have a bit of a break and then things
    will pick right back up again as we get ready for launch.”

    Q: What do you think you will be feeling when that final launch occurs?

    Leinbach: “I don’t know, I mean I have thought a lot about this…I don’t know what it’s
    going to be like. For the last flight of Discovery we had one more launch for
    both Endeavour and Atlantis, well now this really and truly the last flight of
    the shuttle program… so it’s going to be a very reflective time.”

    Leinbach gestures toward his former secretary before the start of the interview. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

    Q: Do you think anything will be special about this mission?

    Leinbach: “The launch itself will be very much any other launch. When the guy’s are
    working on the consoles they are very serious about what they are doing.
    They won’t be distracted by the fact that it is the last one.

    Q: Speaking of your job – it keeps you very busy, have you had any time to reflect?

    Leinbach: “For the moment I still have a lot to do concluding TCDT, but this Saturday I
    am planning on driving out to the launch pad and just looking up at Atlantis
    and just soaking it all in, all by myself.”

    Leinbach started working for NASA as a structural engineer in 1984, his words are softly spoken which tends to lend them even more weight. His first mission as launch director was STS-114. This was the first shuttle launch after the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. Leinbach led the recovery team searching for Columbia’s debris in Texas. A year later in 2004 Leinbach was awarded the Presidential Rank Award, which is given in recognition of long-term accomplishments.

    Atlantis will carry the four person crew of STS-135 to the International Space Station on a resupply flight designed to keep the orbiting outpost well stocked after the shuttles are decommissioned. The mission is scheduled to last twelve days, launching on July 8 at 11:26 a.m. EDT. The crew consists of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.

    The Launch Control Center or LCC is where the final "go" "no-go" for launch is determined. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

    Shuttle Endeavour Will Be Visible Over UK Just After Final Launch


    On April 29th, 2011, the space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to blast off for the last time, delivering the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and an ExPRESS Logistics Carrier to the International Space Station.

    If you live in the UK you can watch the launch live on NASA TV and a number of other sites on the internet, but that’s not all you can do! You may be able to watch it fly over the UK with your very own eyes about 20 minutes later!

    Yes! You can watch the Shuttle fly over the UK roughly 20 minutes after launch (launch time is currently set for 3:47 p.m. EDT – 8:47 p.m. UK Time) if the timing is right and skies are clear. It will be accompanied by its bright orange external fuel tank as it sails across the sky.

    I was lucky to see and actually film this in August 2009 with the launch of STS-128 Space Shuttle Discovery.

    How to see it? Go outside roughly 15 – 20 minutes after launch and you could see two bright objects similar to what the ISS looks like when it passes over, moving at roughly the same speed. These bright objects in parallel to each other will follow a similar track in the sky to what the ISS does, but it will be the Shuttle Endeavour and its separated external fuel tank!

    Hope for clear skies and that the launch isn’t delayed, as this may be our last chance ever of seeing a space shuttle fly over the UK just after launch.

    Checkout NASA’s listing of sighting opportunities for your area.

    Good luck to the crew of the shuttle and to everyone trying to spot it in the sky on Friday!

    Coalition for Space Exploration Tasks us to “Think Outside the Circle”

    The aerospace industry is typically filled with engineers, scientists and pilots. Hardly the segment of the population that is subject to expounding on the virtues of their trade in prose or through some other format. That said, every once and a while, a campaign, image or video comes along that simply nails what the men and women of the industry have been trying to say. Continue reading “Coalition for Space Exploration Tasks us to “Think Outside the Circle””