A team of about 20 working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., through the lab's Phaeton early-career-hire program, led the development of the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science(OPALS) investigation, which is preparing for an April 14 launch to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX-3 mission. The goal? NASA's first optical communication experiment on the orbital laboratory.
Scientific instruments used in space missions increasingly require higher communication rates to transmit gathered data back to Earth or to support high-data-rate applications, like high-definition video streams. Optical communications-also referred to as "lasercom"-is an emerging technology where data is sent via laser beams. This offers the promise of much higher data rates than what is achievable with current radio frequency (RF) transmissions and has the advantage that it operates in a frequency band that is currently unregulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
"Optical communications has the potential to be a game-changer," said Mission Manager Matt Abrahamson. "Right now, many of our deep space missions communicate at 200 to 400 kilobits per second." OPALS will demonstrate up to 50 megabits per second, and future deep space optical communication systems will provide over one gigabits per second from Mars.
"It's like upgrading from dial-up to DSL," added the project's systems engineer Bogdan Oaida. "Our ability to generate data has greatly outpaced our ability to downlink it. Imagine trying to download a movie at home over dial-up. It's essentially the same problem in space, whether we're talking about low-Earth orbit or deep space."
OPALS is scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, part of a cargo resupply mission to the space station. The payload will be inside the Dragon cargo spacecraft. Once deployed, OPALS will be conducting transmission tests for a period of nearly three months, with the possibility of a longer mission. After the Dragon capsule docks with the station, OPALS will be robotically extracted from the trunk of the Dragon, and then manipulated by a robotic arm for positioning on the station's exterior. It is the first investigation developed at JPL to launch on SpaceX's Falcon rocket.
Written By: David Israel and Mark Whalen
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