Laser vision (6/1/23)
Good afternoon, and happy Thursday. I hope you’re having a great short week so far!
Did someone forward you this email? Subscribe to Parallax here.
From Dial-Up to High-Speed
An experimental communications system circling the Earth aboard the ISS is proving just how fast we can beam information back home.
The TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) experiment has broken the record for fastest laser communication from space, transmitting 200 gigabits per second—double the record it set late last year. The NASA- and MIT-led project launched a year ago and has been slowly increasing its comms capacity ever since.
“Just imagine the power of space science instruments when they can be designed to fully take advantage of the advancements in detector speeds and sensitivities, furthering what artificial intelligence can do with huge amounts of data,” mission manager Beth Keer said in a release. “Laser communications is the missing link that will enable the science discoveries of the future.”
Laser vision: There are a few ways to get the massive amounts of data collected by instruments in space back down to Earth where it can actually be used.
The most common method is by broadcasting over radio waves, which we’ve got down to a science, but which runs up against bandwidth and speed limitations and casts a wide beam that can be intercepted—not ideal for sensitive missions.
From the ISS, data can also be transported home physically on cargo missions, trading speed for data volume.
Optical (i.e., light-based) communication via fiber-optic cables is the primary way of connecting over the Internet terrestrially, but until we figure out how to hook up a satellite to a wire and string it back to Earth, that’s not going to work for space comms.
Lasers, on the other hand, hold a lot of potential for solving the speed, capacity, and precision problems presented by traditional methods of sending and receiving data. The infrared wavelength is much more compressed than radio systems, and very narrow beams restrict the possibility of data ending up where you don’t want it.
Running into problems: It’s no easy task to build a resilient laser comms system in space. In testing, the TBIRD instrument ran into problems shedding enough heat so that the components didn’t melt in the space environment, and the researchers ran up against challenges when shining the laser beam through the distorting effects and volatility of Earth’s atmosphere.
To address the latter, the team implemented a system where the receiver on the ground can send a signal back to the station when a message comes in damaged and request a redo.
To the Moon: Laser comms could be the answer to data communication bottlenecks as NASA pushes out to the Moon. Right now, it’s hard to get high volumes of data back from our natural satellite with any sense of urgency, but the TBIRD team says that its solution could provide ~1-5 gigabytes per second in capacity. That’s great news not only for lunar communications, but also for planned science missions that will need to transmit a lot of high-precision data back home for scientists to analyze.
Other News from the Cosmos
The Psyche mission’s independent review board will hold a meeting on Monday to discuss the asteroid mission’s status.
JWST mapped the atmosphere of an ultra-hot gas giant ten times the size of Jupiter in a solar system ~400 light-years away, finding water vapor.
ispace’s HAKUTO-R lander, which crashed on the lunar surface in April, failed due to an anomalous (but accurate) altitude reading that was discarded by the flight system.
The Kepler space telescope’s final observations revealed a trio of exoplanets, new analysis shows.
Enceladus, an icy moon of Jupiter, spewed out a 6,000-mile-long geyser of water vapor, as spotted by JWST.
The View from Space
European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory captured this mosaic of the Vela supernova remnant, revealing the wisps of gas left over from a supernova 11,000 years ago.