LADEE Laser Advancing Space Communications
November 4, 2013

ESA And NASA Teaming Up For Space Laser Communications

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) orbiter is working with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ground station on the island of Tenerife to deliver data like never before about the Moon.

LADEE was launched on September 7 and began orbiting the Moon in October with a mission to analyze the Moon’s environment. The spacecraft is carrying a new laser terminal capable of delivering data at speeds that are far superior to traditional radio waves currently being used by satellites and ground stations.

“We acquired the first signals from LADEE on 26 October, and since then, we’ve had a series of optical uplinks and downlinks providing extremely fast laser communications,” Zoran Sodnik, ESA’s project manager for the laser effort, said in a press release. “We’ve already received data at up to 40 Mbit/s – several times faster than a typical home broadband connection.”

LADEE made the first-ever laser transmission from lunar orbit back on October 18 when a NASA station at White Sands, New Mexico picked up the signal. This new form of communication could be the way space agencies communicate with spacecraft on future missions to Mars or asteroids.

ESA said its team on Tenerife is tweaking the station hardware and improving procedures. The space agency said it is still investigating some of the initial difficulties with the accuracy, but Klaus-Juergen Schulz has high hopes for the new form of communication.

“We are already confident that the test campaign will confirm the practicality of high-data-rate optical links for future missions,” Schulz, responsible for ground station systems at the European Space Operations Centre, said in a press release.

ESA engineers will begin testing uplink communications in the upcoming weeks, as well as obtain an accurate “time-of-travel” measurement so scientists can calculate the spacecraft’s orbit.

LADEE team members will also be monitoring atmospheric conditions during transmission to learn how to improve performance even further using special equipment provided by the DLR German Aerospace Center’s Institute for Communication and Navigation.

“The participation of the ESA ground terminal at Tenerife in NASA’s project is an important milestone in this new capability,” Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator for space communications and navigation at NASA’s Headquarters in Washington DC, said in a press release. “Together, we have demonstrated at the very beginning of the optical communication era the value of interoperable communication between our space agencies.”

NASA said in October that LADEE’s communication demonstration made history with its laser beam by transmitting data over the 239,000 miles between the Moon and Earth at a download rate of 622 megabits per second.

The development of laser communications will help NASA extend communication capabilities, such as increased image resolution and 3D video transmission, into deep space.