NASA fires up lasers for 200Mbps broadband in space

13 Oct 2015

NASA's tiny CubeSat spacecraft

NASA is targeting broadband speeds via laser beams in space at rates up to 200Mbps via an array of tiny CubeSat spacecraft. This is 100 times faster than what is currently possible.

NASA and the Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, California, will begin testing after receiving confirmation that the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) CubeSat spacecraft is in orbit and operational.

OCSD launched aboard an Atlas V rocket Thursday from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

OCSD is the first in a new series of six NASA-managed technology demonstration missions set to launch during the coming months using CubeSats to test technologies that can enable new uses for these miniature satellites, which measure 10cm x 10cm x 10cm.

OCSD differs from other space-based laser communication systems because the laser is hard-mounted to the spacecraft body, and the orientation of the CubeSat controls the direction of the beam.

NASA broadband breakthrough could accelerate space discovery

The CubeSat will evaluate the ability to point a small satellite accurately as it demonstrates data transfer by laser at rates of up to 200Mbps — a factor of 100 increase over current high-end CubeSat communications systems.

“Technology demonstration missions like OCSD are driving exploration,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“By improving the communication capability of small spacecraft to support data-intensive science missions, OCSD will advance the potential to become a more viable option for mission planners.”

The second OCSD mission, scheduled to launch no earlier than 1 February, will use two CubeSats to demonstrate the ability to manoeuvre small spacecraft in close proximity to one another using low-cost sensors and a novel propulsion system that uses water as a propellant.

This technology can enhance the ability of small spacecraft to work in coordination with other satellites to explore asteroids, planets and moons, as well as inspecting other spacecraft.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years