NASA's optical comms demo transmits data over 140 million miles

The project team ordered the transceiver to transmit soul-generated data optically. When Psyche transmits data to NASA on its radio frequency Deep space network (DSN), the optical communications system simultaneously transmitted a portion of the same data to the Hale telescope. Caltech's Palomar Laboratory Tech Demo's primary downlink ground station – in San Diego County, California.

„After receiving the data from DSN and Palomar, we verified the optically downlinked data at JPL,” said Ken Andrews, JPL's program flight operations lead. „It's a small amount of data tied down over a short period of time, but the fact that we're doing it now has exceeded all of our expectations.”

Fun with lasers

After Psych was launched, the optical communications demo was used to downlink the initially loaded data. Cat knocks video. Since then, the project has demonstrated that it can receive data from the transceiver High-power uplink laser at JPL's Table Mountain facility near Wrightwood, California. As the project demonstrated in a recent „reverse experiment,” data can be transmitted to a transceiver and retransmitted to Earth the same night.

The experiment sent test data — as well as digital pet photos — to Psych. It mined large amounts of TechDemo's own engineering data to study the characteristics of optical communications connectivity.

„We've learned a lot about how far we can push the system when there are clear skies, although storms sometimes interrupt operations at both Table Mountain and Palomar,” said Ryan Rogalin, the program's receiver electronics lead at JPL. (While radio frequency communications can operate in most weather conditions, optical communications require relatively clear skies to transmit high-bandwidth data.)

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JBL recently led an experiment at DSN's Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in Barstow, California, combining an experimental radio-frequency-optical antenna and detector on Table Mountain to receive the same signal in concert. „Racing” multiple ground stations to reflect a large receiver can help boost the deep space signal. This strategy is also useful if a ground station is forced offline due to weather; Other stations may still receive the signal.

More about the mission

The demonstration, managed by JPL, is the latest in a series of optical communications experiments funded by the Technology Demonstration Missions (TDM) program under NASA's Space Technology Directorate. MIT Lincoln Laboratory, L3 Harris, CACI, First Mode and Controlled Dynamics Inc., and Fibertech, Coherent, and Dotfast support ground systems for development of the in-flight laser transceiver. Some are developed through technology NASA's Small Business Innovation Research Program.

Arizona State University is leading the psychology work. JPL is responsible for overall management of the mission, systems engineering, integration and testing, and mission operations. Psyche is the 14th mission selected as part of NASA's Discovery Program under the Science Operations Directorate, managed by the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. NASA's Launch Services Program at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida managed the launch service. Maxar Technologies supplied the chassis of the high-powered solar powered spacecraft from Palo Alto, California.

For more information on the Laser Contact Demo, visit:

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