Aiming for a Summer 2019 launch, NASA is currently working on an innovative laser-based space communications system that’s reportedly being described as “high-speed Internet of the sky” by officials. The name of this communicative interface is the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which is projected to be significantly faster and more powerful than its predecessor known as the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE).
LCRD will be able to send data using light-concentrated laser beams to and from Earth up to 100 times faster than its counterpart, along with any other known radio frequency (RF) communications systems. LCRD will expand on LADEE’s capabilities of demonstrating high-speed, laser-based communications systems beyond Low-Earth orbit. With smaller-sized technology, the spacecraft communications system could wind up weighing less than its predecessor, and thus require less power as a result. Considering how these plans are all aiming to maintain a long-duration space flight, it makes these factors very significant.
“LCRD is the next step in implementing NASA’s vision of using optical communications (laser communications) for both near-Earth and deep-space missions,” says Steve Jurczyk, an associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “This technology has the potential to revolutionize space communications, and we are excited to partner with the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate’s Space Communications and Navigation pogram office, MIT Lincoln Labs, and the US Air Force on this effort,”
The LCRD project will aim to further demonstrate longevity, operational durability, along with its performance in various space and weather conditions. The spacecraft is designed to operate from 2-5 years, and will navigate into an orbit matching Earth’s rotation. Once in orbit, the LCRD will maintain communication through laser modems, with two ground-based terminals in California and Hawaii. The LCRD is armed with actuators that will stabilize the spacecraft and ensure it stays in the perfect position when in orbit, so it can communicate with ground-based terminals. Engineers are currently testing the durability of each individual component the spacecraft contains, mainly to monitor their abilities to withstand launching conditions.
Equipped with a space-switching unit that’s equivalent to a data router, the spacecraft will ably connect to identical optical terminals and an RF downlink. This is what will allow the spacecraft to convert digital data into laser light that can get beamed back down to Earth.