NASA’s Psyche mission, coupled with DSOC’s groundbreaking laser communication technology, is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of space
A groundbreaking experiment conducted as part of NASA’s Psyche mission has reached a significant milestone, marking the furthest-ever demonstration of laser communications. This technological demonstration, if successful in its entirety, has the potential to enhance future NASA missions exploring the depths of space and contributing to our understanding of the universe’s origins.
Launched in mid-October, Psyche is on its way to provide humanity’s initial view of a metallic asteroid situated between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Over the next six years, the spacecraft will cover approximately 2.2 billion miles (3.6 billion kilometers) to reach its destination in the outer region of the main asteroid belt.
Overview of Psyche Mission
Accompanying Psyche on its journey is the Deep Space Optical Communications technology demonstration (DSOC), which is conducting its own mission during the initial two years of the expedition. This tech demo was designed to represent NASA’s most distant attempt at high-bandwidth laser communications, assessing the transmission and reception of data to and from Earth using an invisible near-infrared laser. The laser is capable of transmitting data at speeds ranging from 10 to 100 times faster than traditional radio wave systems utilized in other NASA missions. Should the experiment prove entirely successful in the next couple of years, it could establish the foundation for communication technology used in interactions with humans exploring Mars.
Recently, DSOC accomplished a significant engineering feat referred to as “first light,” successfully transmitting and receiving its inaugural data. For the first time, the experiment beamed a laser encoded with data from a location well beyond the moon. The test data, transmitted from nearly 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) away, successfully reached the Hale Telescope at the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory in Pasadena, California. The distance between DSOC and Hale was approximately 40 times greater than the distance from the moon to Earth.
“Achieving first light is one of many critical DSOC milestones in the coming months, paving the way toward higher-data-rate communications capable of sending scientific information, high-definition imagery, and streaming video in support of humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars,”-Trudy Kortes, Director of Technology Demonstrations at NASA
Laser Beams Traveling in Space
The inaugural illumination, taking place on November 14, unfolded when Psyche’s flight laser transceiver tool received a laser signal from the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, California.
The pioneer signal grasped by Psyche’s transceiver facilitated the laser’s alignment, directing data transmission towards the Hale Telescope, positioned approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Table Mountain.
While not the inaugural attempt at space-based laser communications, the primary two-way laser communication test occurred in December 2021 with NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, which entered orbit approximately 22,000 miles (35,406 kilometers) from Earth.
Subsequent experiments have dispatched optical communications from low-Earth orbit to the moon. The upcoming Artemis II mission will leverage laser communications to relay high-definition video during a crewed orbit around the moon. Notably, DSOC signifies the primary instance of laser communications spanning deep space, necessitating extraordinarily precise targeting over millions of miles.
The preliminary evaluation of the technological demonstration’s capabilities will enable the team to enhance the systems governing the laser’s precision in pointing. Once this aspect is validated, DSOC will be poised to exchange data with the Hale Telescope as the spacecraft ventures farther from Earth.
While DSOC won’t transmit actual scientific data collected by the Psyche spacecraft due to its experimental nature, the laser will be employed to transmit encoded bits of test data through the laser’s photons, or quantum light particles.
The signal from Psyche can be detected by arrays on Earth, and the data can be extracted from the photons. This form of optical communication has the potential to revolutionize how NASA transmits and receives data from its deep space missions.
Dr. Jason Mitchell, director of the Advanced Communications and Navigation Technologies Division within NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program, stated, “Optical communication is a valuable asset for scientists and researchers seeking more from their space missions, facilitating human exploration of deep space and leading to more discoveries.”
As Psyche progresses on its journey, it faces additional challenges. The DSOC team will monitor the duration of laser messages traveling through space. In the initial test, it took only 50 seconds for the laser to travel from Psyche to Earth. At the greatest distance between the spacecraft and Earth, the laser is anticipated to take 20 minutes for a one-way journey. Throughout this time, the spacecraft will continue its movement, and Earth will undergo rotation.
Meanwhile, the Psyche spacecraft remains engaged in preparations for its primary mission, activating propulsion systems and conducting tests on the scientific instruments essential for studying the asteroid upon its arrival in July 2029. The mission holds the potential to reveal whether the asteroid is the exposed core of an early planetary building block from the inception of the solar system.
NASA’s Psyche mission, coupled with DSOC’s groundbreaking laser communication technology, is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of space. As the spacecraft hurtles through the cosmos, we eagerly anticipate more milestones, more data, and more discoveries that may reshape our perception of the universe.