Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science laser beam
June 7, 2014

NASA Transmits Video From Space Station To Test New Communication Technology

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A high-definition video beamed 260 miles from the International Space Station (ISS) to Earth on Thursday has become the first 175-megabit communication transmission for NASA’s new Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) technology, the US space agency has announced.

Transmission of the video message entitled “Hello, World!” was meant to demonstrate advanced methods for communicating with future spacecraft using a higher bandwidth than radiowaves, the agency explained. Developed by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, OPALS is a laser communications instrument that arrived on the space station on April 20 of this year.

[ Watch the Video: NASA’s OPALS Beams Video From Space ]

“The International Space Station is a test bed for a host of technologies that are helping us increase our knowledge of how we operate in space and enable us to explore even farther into the solar system,” Sam Scimemi, ISS division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

“Using the space station to investigate ways we can improve communication rates with spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit is another example of how the orbital complex serves as a stepping stone to human deep space exploration,” he added.

OPALS features optical communication technology which uses focused laser energy to reach data transfer rates at least 10 times and up to 1,000 times higher than current space communication capabilities, which are reliant upon radio portions of the electronic spectrum.

Since the space station travels at speeds of 17,500 mph while orbiting Earth, transmitting data to the ground from the laboratory requires precision targeting. Officials at the US space agency compare the process to a person attempting to aim a laser pointed at the end of a hair follicle 30 feet away, and keeping it held steady while walking.

[ Watch the Video: Space Station Live: Optical Communication From Space ]

“To achieve this extreme precision during Thursday’s demonstration, OPALS locked onto a laser beacon emitted by the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory ground station at the Table Mountain Observatory in Wrightwood, California, and began to modulate the beam from its 2.5-watt, 1,550-nanometer laser to transmit the video,” NASA officials said.

The process lasted a total of 148 seconds and reached maximum data transmission rates of 50 megabits per second. In total, OPALS required 3.5 seconds to transmit each copy of the “Hello World!” video – a process that agency officials point out would have taken more than 10 minutes if traditional downlink methods were used.

“It's incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station,” explained Matt Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager at JPL. “We look forward to experimenting with OPALS over the coming months in hopes that our findings will lead to optical communications capabilities for future deep space exploration missions.”

OPALS, which was ferried to the space station as part of SpaceX’s third contracted resupply mission (SpaceX-3), launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 18. The instrument is mounted on the outside of the ISS and communicates with a ground station near Los Angeles.

The instrument’s prime mission is currently scheduled to run for a total of 90 days.

“OPALS represents a tangible stepping stone for laser communications, and the International Space Station is a great platform for an experiment like this,” Michael Kokorowski, OPALS project manager at JPL, said in a statement last July.

“Future operational laser communication systems will have the ability to transmit more data from spacecraft down to the ground than they currently do, mitigating a significant bottleneck for scientific investigations and commercial ventures,” he added.