NASA received a signal from a spacecraft 10 million miles away.
The space agency said the message, delivered using a remote laser, could “transform” communications with spacecraft.
It represents a successful test for NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications Experiment, or DSOC experiment. It is also the first time that data has been successfully transmitted via laser from farther than the Moon – and represents a rapid increase, at a distance of more than 40 times the Moon’s surface.
Currently, almost all communications with deep space vehicles is through radio signals, sent and received from huge antennas on Earth. They have proven reliable but their bandwidth is limited, which means it is slow or impossible to send large files like high-definition photos and videos.
NASA’s work on DSOC is an attempt to use optical communications through lasers instead. The space agency says this technology could improve data rates by up to 100 times.
The first attempt to test the technology outside the moon was on NASA’s Psyche mission, which left Earth last month on a mission to study a distant asteroid. The spacecraft carries a laser transceiver that can send and receive laser signals in the near infrared.
Last week, this equipment was installed on NASA’s laser beacon in California. NASA says the “first light” breakthrough is part of a group of experiments it hopes will prove the success of laser technology.
“Achieving first light is one of many important milestones for DSOC in the coming months, paving the way toward higher data rate communications capable of sending scientific information, high-definition images and streaming video to support humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans,” said Trudy Curtis, Promotion Director. Technology at the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington said, “We are traveling to Mars.”
NASA likens the precise targeting of a laser signal to trying to direct light at a coin from a mile away. What’s more, the laser and its target are constantly moving: in the 20 minutes it would take the light to travel to Earth from Psyche’s farthest distance, both the planet and the spacecraft will have moved noticeably.
The team will now work to improve the systems that ensure the spacecraft directs the laser beams in the right direction. When that happens, NASA will attempt an experiment to prove that the spacecraft is capable of sustaining high-bandwidth data transmission at various distances from Earth.
It will do this by dividing the data into parts that can be encoded in photons of light sent by the spacecraft. This light then reaches a telescope on Earth and can be reassembled into images or other important data that will be transmitted by spacecraft – and perhaps humans – in the future.
“Devoted student. Bacon advocate. Beer scholar. Troublemaker. Falls down a lot. Typical coffee enthusiast.”