Japan launches advanced relay satellite with laser communications tech into orbit

Artist's concept of the JAXA Laser Utilizing Communication System (LUCAS) payload relaying information to other satellites using laser technology.
Artist's concept of the JAXA Laser Utilizing Communication System (LUCAS) payload relaying information to other satellites using laser technology. (Image credit: JAXA)

A Japanese satellite carrying laser relay technology launched into space Sunday (Nov. 29) on a mission to transfer data at high speeds from military and civilian Earth observation spacecraft.

The communications satellite carrying the laser payload soared to orbit at at 2:25 a.m. EST (0725 GMT or 4:25 p.m. local time) from the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan, aboard an H-IIA rocket.

Rocket builder and launch provider Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) announced the successful launch on Twitter, adding the satellite had separated from the upper stage of the rocket. From there, the satellite will make its way to geostationary orbit for a 10-year mission. "It was confirmed that the rocket flew as planned," MHI said in a machine-translated statement from Japanese

Unusually, the mission was not broadcast live from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency or JAXA, perhaps because of the sensitive nature of the laser technology, according to Spaceflight Now. No information was provided about its exact orbital track, either.

Related: Japan's H-IIA & H-IIB rockets explained

A Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket launches an advanced data relay satellite carrying the LUCAS laser communications system into orbit from Tanegashima Space Center on Nov. 29, 2020. (Image credit: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries)

The satellite payload, called Laser Utilizing Communication System or LUCAS for short, will send data from satellites in low Earth orbit using laser technology, according to a machine-translated version of the JAXA mission page in Japanese.

LUCAS will fly to geostationary orbit, which allows it to rotate at the same rate as the the Earth at roughly 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the equator. It will have a continuous view over the Asia-Pacific area.

From its high altitude, LUCAS will connect with satellites in low Earth orbit using a near-infrared laser beam. The laser technology on LUCAS sends information at 1.8 gigabytes per second, which is seven times faster than the current standard of sending information by radio waves, JAXA said.

With Earth-observing satellites more numerous than ever due to small satellites from private companies leveraging more advanced computing technology, JAXA said LUCAS would allow for "future increase in data transmission capacity, and immediacy requirements" in low Earth orbit spacecraft.

Getting information quickly from these satellites is imperative to make full use of their applications, which include monitoring the Earth for global warming and assisting in disaster response after catastrophic events such as hurricanes. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace