NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications Sets the Stage for Future Mars Missions 

NASA's Deep Space Communications has communicated data via laser from a distance 40 times greater than the Earth-Moon separation. 

NASA’s Deep Space Communications has successfully communicated data via laser from a distance 40 times greater than the Earth-Moon separation. 

  • The DSOC is part of the Psyche spacecraft heading to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. 
  • It uses near-infrared laser communication for higher data transmission rates. 

NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment has successfully sent and received data via laser from nearly 16 million kilometers away. 

Considering that the distance is 40 times that between the Moon and Earth, this is the farthest-ever demonstration of optical communications. It opens the door to high-bandwidth communication in deep space.  

The space agency aptly calls it “first light.” 

Back in October, NASA launched its Psyche spacecraft, headed toward the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. On board was the DSOC transceiver, which uses near-infrared laser communication capable of packing data into tighter waves. So, while both radio and near-infrared laser communications use electromagnetic waves, the latter allows the transmission of more data. In fact, the data transmission rates for this experiment were 10 to 100 times greater than those of current radio frequency systems. 

In short, the DSOC locked onto a powerful uplink laser beacon transmitted from the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The transceiver then directed its downlink laser back to Palomar.  

“Achieving first light is one of many critical DSOC milestones in the coming months, paving the way toward higher-data-rate communications capable of sending scientific information, high-definition imagery, and streaming video in support of humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars,” stated Trudy Kortes, director of Technology Demonstrations at NASA Headquarters. 

While this technology promises enhanced communication for future Mars missions and other deep space missions, what can it do for us? How can we, the blissfully grounded on Earth, benefit from this giant leap for deep space communications? 

Well, it’s simple, really. Communications with rural and underserved communities across the globe. Unsurprisingly, 37% of the world has no access to the internet. And many countries that have a connection have a poor one. And there are multiple reasons for this, including poverty, a lack of infrastructure, and geographic challenges.  

So, using the DSOC would eliminate obstacles related to terrain and limited communication infrastructure. Heck, take Lebanon, for example. While it has some infrastructure, the country is far from being well-equipped. 

Humanity may not benefit from the DSOC beyond deep space communications for a while. But there’s hope. And at this point, we’ll take it any way it comes. 

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