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As humans inch closer to becoming an interplanetary species, maintaining communication with Earth is vital. On Friday, NASA and partner agency Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) hitched a ride with SpaceX on an ambitious mission to target a metal-rich asteroid, and hopes to demonstrate a new, laser-based transmission system that promises to deliver higher rates of data delivery from deep space.
The experimental laser transmitter for the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) project launched on board SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket was carrying the Psyche mission, which involves a six-year trip to the asteroid and will provide a real-world (or real-space) test of the DSOC transmitter.
“The DSOC is NASA's first experiment to take optical communications past lunar distances to deep space,” JPL’s DSOC project lead Malcolm Wright told Decrypt in an Interview. “The advantage of optical communications is that prior to now, all the communications have been on radio or microwave links.”
As Wright explained, until now, sending signals using radio and microwaves required larger dishes on the ground and antennas mounted on spacecraft, with limits in frequency reducing the data rate that can be transmitted back to Earth.
“By going to optical communications using lasers and detectors from behind telescopes to basically be able to send more information, then you could with the radio, under higher frequencies, and so you're able to put more information on the data,” Wright said, likening the change from cable internet speeds to fiber optics.
Are you ready to rock? We are in full communication with #MissionToPsyche, and the spacecraft is in good health!
— NASA (@NASA) October 13, 2023
As Wright explained, the main challenge with optical communications is the need for precise pointing of the system. Unlike conventional radio frequency (RF) antennas on spacecraft with a wide beam width, optical communication payload requires pinpoint accuracy when targeting Earth with the spacecraft and the ground station using highly sensitive detectors to count individual particles of light called photons. Unlink traditional imaging cameras; Deep Space Optical Communication cameras detect single photons per pixel frame.
Another challenge, Wright said, was with the weather. The signals can pass through the atmosphere unless blocked by dense clouds, which might also cause signal fading due to atmospheric disruptions requiring the data signals to be encoded to counteract the fading signal.
Despite these challenges, Wright said optical communications offer several advantages, including being ideal for transmitting covert and sensitive communications due to having a direct line of sight and matching specific wavelengths and directions, unlike radio waves that are more widely spread.
Last year, Web3 company Infinity Labs launched Dreambound Orbital, intending to launch blockchains into space. In December, Dreambound Orbital partnered with NASA to launch a collection of NFTs from various contributors into space. Inspired by the 1977 Voyager Mission’s “Golden Record,” DreamboundM1 beamed digital collectibles from the Solana Foundation, Metaplex, Magic Eden, World of Women, OpenSea, and others to the International Space Station.
"The line that we have on Orbital is, 'Despite everything, humanity found time to dream,'” the pseudonymous founder of Infinity Labs, Infinity Eve, previously told Decrypt. "Since Web3 meant a lot to me, it allowed me to reinvent myself and heal. I wanted to put [this] together for the Web3 community."
DSOC is one of the many projects coming out of Pasadena-based JPL, whose work focuses on NASA’s various missions related to robotics and exploration. Founded in 1943, JPL traces its history back to the 1930s with the work of a group of California Institute of Technology (Caltech) students, teachers, and enthusiasts dubbed the “Suicide Squad” by their peers. The Suicide Squad included Hungarian aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán and rocket scientist, chemist, and occultist John Whiteside “Jack” Parsons.
JPL was folded into the newly founded NASA in December 1958.
While Friday’s launch is only a demonstration of DSOC technology, Wright said similar equipment will be used on the upcoming Artemis program that will see NASA return to the moon’s orbit with a future plan to once again land on the moon’s surface.
“This is a deep space demo,” Wright said. “Once you've demonstrated capability, then this becomes a technology that other missions can use, and we've got plenty of missions that are in the pipeline.”