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How NASA's new laser communications mission will work in space

A "data hunger" in space is driving the launch of a new laser communications mission, a NASA official told Space.com.

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration will launch on the United States Space Force Space Test Program 3 (STP-3) mission no earlier than Dec. 5 at 4:04 a.m. EST (0904 GMT). You can watch the rocket launch Sunday online courtesy of United Launch Alliance, which is flying the mission on an Atlas V rocket.

"This will be our first foray into understanding, what does it mean to use lasers to communicate and really connect directly to Earth and space users?" Jason Mitchell, Director of SCaN Advanced Communications & Navigation Technology Division at NASA, told Space.com in a recent video interview.

Related: Dial-up space communications system gets 'high-speed' upgrade

An artist's impression of NASA's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration mission. (Image credit: NASA)

LCRD will help NASA learn about possible effects to manage, ranging from atmospheric turbulence to cloud deflection, Mitchell noted. The timing is crucial as NASA and its international partners expand its exploration focus over the coming decades.

Newly announced private space stations will only expand the need for fast information flowing to and from Earth. Meanwhile, astronauts on the moon and a sample return mission on Mars could benefit from faster communications speeds 10 to 100 times faster than current-day radio.

LCRD and forthcoming laser demonstrations a little further from Earth, Mitchell said, will help figure out how to operate lasers from a hub such as a moon base. In turn, he said, the "learning experience at the moon [will show] how we would look to operate this at Mars — as well as in any other location, really, in space where you have a central spot that you really want to collect a lot of data from."

LCRD will operate from geosynchronous orbit at 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) to test out laser communications for at least two years. The demonstration is meant to demonstrate the sustainability of longer space missions after several brief, successful attempts to try laser comms in space. 

Making sure the mission outlasted the stresses of launch and space radiation for years, instead of a few weeks of months, was top of mind during the design process, Mitchell said.

"We've invested for quite a few years to bring this sort of science fiction capability into regular operational use. And really, it's just been making sure that we can get all that technology packaged in a way that will survive in space. That's been the big challenge, and that's what we've been focused on."

There are more lasers launching soon, too. The Artemis 2 crewed moon-orbiting mission for 2024, is expected to test an Orion spacecraft optical communications system to send ultra-high-definition video feedback to Earth.

Also, the first year of the Psyche mission (targeting a metal asteroid of the same name) will include a test of the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) payload, which will help investigators learn how to precisely direct laser communications from deep space.

"As the trajectory goes out, we'll be doing all kinds of experiments with the DSOC to try and understand how much data can we get," Mitchell said of Psyche. Eventually, he added, the investigators will learn how far the spacecraft will navigate before data flow slows, and controllers need to switch to "literally counting individual photons with these ultra sensitive detectors on the ground."

Besides the need for speed, NASA says the switch to laser will solve another growing space problem: frequency overcrowding. As satellite megaconstellations grow in numbers and commercial space launches increase, radiofrequency spectrum is becoming harder to get. It's becoming so difficult that companies often file regulatory challenges concerning each other's spectrum.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.