NASA's Psyche spacecraft beams back a 'Hello' from 10 million miles away

Transmitting data from deep space, with a frickin' laser beam

NASA has fired up its Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) aboard the agency's Psyche spacecraft and received test data from nearly 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) away.

At first glance, the achievement isn't all that much. Sure, that's approximately 40 times farther than the Moon is from the Earth, but other probes still transmit from mind-bending distances. However, the potential benefit here is a considerable bump in data transmission rates.

The DSOC experiment hopes to demonstrate data transmission rates 10 to 100 times greater than the state-of-the-art radio frequency systems used by spacecraft today.


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The rate bump is important considering the ever-increasing complexity of modern spacecraft payloads that capture prodigious amounts of data to be squirted back at ground stations on Earth. Onboard storage and computing provide some mitigation, but at some point, the data is required back at base.

The technology itself is not particularly new. Optical communication has been demonstrated in low Earth orbit and out to the Moon, but DSOC is a first since it is run in a deep space environment. NASA said: "Like using a laser pointer to track a moving dime from a mile away, aiming a laser beam over millions of miles requires extremely precise 'pointing.'"

"First light" was achieved on November 14 as the flight laser transceiver aboard Psyche locked onto the uplink laser beacon transmitted from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, California. The uplink beacon helped the transceiver aim its downlink laser back to a facility approximately 100 miles (130 kilometers) south of Table Mountain. Automated systems took care of the fine-tuning.

While both radio and the near-infrared laser used by DSOC harness electromagnetic waves to transmit the data, the significantly tighter waves of near-infrared light mean ground stations can receive more data. And more data means more science.

"Achieving first light is a tremendous achievement. The ground systems successfully detected the deep space laser photons from DSOC's flight transceiver aboard Psyche," said Abi Biswas, project technologist for DSOC at JPL. "And we were also able to send some data, meaning we were able to exchange 'bits of light' from and to deep space."

Meera Srinivasan, operations lead for DSOC at JPL, said: "It was a formidable challenge, and we have a lot more work to do, but for a short time, we were able to transmit, receive, and decode some data." There is indeed a way to go. The next step will be refining how the downlink laser aboard the transceiver is pointed to demonstrate sustained high-bandwidth data transmission back to Earth.

While all this is happening, check-outs are still being performed on the Psyche spacecraft ahead of arriving at its target asteroid in 2028. DSOC is not transmitting mission data, but there is every chance the technology will be used in future missions. ®

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