The Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) has tested internet capabilities in space. Results of the experiment were far better than expected.
NASA researchers broadcast high-definition video from the LADEE spacecraft while the vehicle traveled to the Moon in October. Connection speeds as great as 622 megabits per second were achieved during the test. This is equivalent to transmitting 100 high-definition television stations at once. Current space-based communications occur at just one-tenth as fast. Most internet connections do not come close to delivering that much information.
Two-way laser communications between the Moon and Earth had never before been attempted. These systems are being explored to replace radio communications in space. Since the beginning of space travel, space travelers and robotic craft have depended on radio communications. But, those systems are quickly reaching technological limits, as more bandwidth is required for space missions. Lasers would also experience less interference than the older technology.
This experiment could be the prototype for networks broadcasting 3D video from orbit above the Earth. Astronauts could also use such a system to control robotic miners, harvesting ore from asteroids or other worlds. Such high-speed communications could also prove essential to directing lunar robots on building a human colony.
While the LADEE spacecraft housed the space-based half of the communications experiment, ground controllers were stationed at NASA's White Sands Complex in New Mexico.
"An MIT team designed, built, and tested the [White Sands] terminal. They also will be responsible for LLCD's operation at that site. There are two alternate sites, one located at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, which is for receiving only," researchers told UK MailOnline. The other station is managed by the European Space Agency on the island of Tenerife, off the African coast. That station is capable of two-way communication capability with LADEE.
In 2017, NASA intends to launch the Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD) satellite to lunar orbit. Paired with it will be a second test vehicle, which will be placed in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth. Researchers hope to establish a laser communication system between the two that will reach speeds over one gigabit per second. Communications are scheduled to run for five years.
"The goal of LLCD is to validate and build confidence in this technology so that future missions will consider using it. This unique ability developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory has incredible application possibilities," Don Cornwell, LLCD manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said.
Using radio communications, it would take decades to transmit a map of Mars at the same quality as Google maps of Earth. However, the new laser network could complete that task in just a few months.