New NASA communications system in today’s Psych release

As NASA’s Psych mission to visit a metallic asteroid launches today, the spacecraft will carry a test of a new communications system, including an added bonus.

Testing Space Lasers for Deep Space Optical Communications (Mission Overview)

The Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment will test a laser-based communications system that will help NASA transmit more information from deep space missions, such as future missions to Mars.

The in-flight transceiver for NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications Technology Demonstration, recognizable by its large tube-like sunshade on the Psyche spacecraft, is seen here inside a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA primarily communicates with its distant spacecraft using a system called the Deep Space Network, a collection of three sites in California, Spain and Australia that have large communications dishes to detect signals sent from space. Since these three sites are spaced around the globe, it is always possible to detect at least one signal from them, no matter which direction the Earth is facing.

Because signals travel at a hard limit at the speed of light, it’s impossible to make communication faster – for example, a communication delay of 20 minutes between Earth and Mars is not something we can do. Can be fixed at any time. But there is another way to improve the existing network, which is to increase its bandwidth.

As more missions fly into space and the instruments they carry become more sophisticated, the total amount of data to be transmitted increases. To accommodate that, communications have to be more up to higher frequencies, while being able to transmit more data.

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That’s the idea behind NASA’s current upgrades to its Deep Space Network, so that Earth-based communications dishes designed for radio communications can also handle laser communications. Compared to radio communications, laser (also called optical) systems can carry ten times more data.

In addition to improving equipment on the ground, laser-based communication systems should also be tested in space. NASA has been working on demonstration systems in orbit around Earth for years, and now it will test the new system on a real mission: Psyche.

For the first two years of Psyche’s mission to the main asteroid belt, DSOC will test the use of laser communications in real deep space travel. The data will be collected by the 200-inch (5.1-meter) Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in California, which will probe the system at distances of up to 240 million miles.

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