NASA works with industry giants, private industry partners, and small businesses under Artemis (a mission back to the Moon aiming to develop a “long-term presence on the lunar surface) to achieve scalable, affordable, and advanced laser communications systems for greater exploratory capabilities.
Laser communications provide missions with increased data rates to send and receive more information in a single transmission than traditional radio waves. With laser communications to send information, infrared light packs the data into tighter waves so that ground stations on Earth receive more data at once. Laser communication provides 10x to 100x higher data rates than the radio systems currently used in space missions. While it takes approximately nine weeks to transmit a complete map of Mars back to Earth with current RF systems, laser technology can do it in about nine days.
NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Program funded the successful development of a new piece of laser technology developed by Fibertek Inc. The Basestation Optical Laser Terminal is a four-channel laser unit that enables the transmission of high-power communications to the Moon during the Artemis II flight test. Called the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System, the demonstration will use laser communications to transmit high-resolution images and video of the lunar region to two ground stations. One of the ground stations is NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, a Low-Cost Optical Terminal that uses commercial off-the-shelf or slightly modified hardware to reduce the expense of laser communications technology.
Fibertek’s technology was successfully tested and integrated into NASA’s low-cost terminal ground station. NASA’s Low-Cost Optical Terminal is a telescope 27 inches in diameter. Using commercial components is more cost-effective than developing custom hardware and can also make an architecture scalable for replication.