NASA’s space station lasercom terminal achieves first link

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NASA’s ILLUMA-T payload communicates with the LCRD via laser signals. Credit: NASA / Dave Ryan

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NASA’s ILLUMA-T payload communicates with the LCRD via laser signals. Credit: NASA / Dave Ryan

A NASA technology experiment on the International Space Station made its first laser connection on Dec. 5, 2023 completed with laser relay system in orbit. Together, the two completed NASA’s first two-way, end-to-end laser relay system.

NASA’s LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) and the new space station demonstration, ILLUMA-T (Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal) have successfully exchanged data for the first time. A user mission from LCRD and ILLUMA-T, a laser communications relay located in geosynchronous orbit, demonstrates how the space station can benefit in this regard.

Laser communication, also known as optical communications, uses infrared light rather than traditional radio waves to send and receive signals. The tighter wavelength of infrared light allows the spacecraft to pack more data into each transmission. Using laser communications greatly increases the efficiency of data transmission and leads to a faster pace of scientific discoveries.

On November 9, NASA’s SpaceX 29th Commercial Resupply Services launched cargo and new science experiments, including ILLUMA-T, to the space station. Following its arrival, the payload was installed in the station’s Japanese experimental module-disclosed facility.


NASA’s ILLUMA-T payload reaches first light with LCRD. In this video, Matt Maxamen explains the first light milestone.

ILLUMA-T and LCRD are part of the NASA Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program, demonstrating how laser communications technologies can significantly benefit science and exploration missions.

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„The first connection with the Illuma-T LCD—known as First Light—is the latest demonstration that proves that laser communications are the future.” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, Director of SCaN’s Advanced Communications and Navigation Technology Division. „Laser communications will not only provide additional data from science missions, but will also serve as a critical, two-way link for NASA to connect astronauts exploring the Moon, Mars and beyond with Earth.”


NASA’s Laser Communications Roadmap: Demonstrating Laser Communications Capabilities on Multiple Missions in Different Space Regimes. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan

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NASA’s Laser Communications Roadmap: Demonstrating Laser Communications Capabilities on Multiple Missions in Different Space Regimes. Credit: NASA/Dave Ryan

Shortly after the launch of the space station, operations engineers began conducting on-orbit tests to ensure that the ILLUMA-T payload was operating nominally. Now, it communicates with LCRD, a relay launched in 2021 that has hosted more than 300 test structures to refine NASA laser communication technologies. LCRD and ILLUMA-T exchange data at a speed of 1.2 gigabits per second.

„We have demonstrated that we can overcome the technical challenges for successful space communications using laser communications. We are now performing operational demonstrations and tests that will allow us to leverage the technology proven in our missions to enhance our exploration and science,” he said. David Israel, NASA Space Communications and Navigation Architect.

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