Space Lasers Will Beam Astronauts’ Superfast Video

“It’s like upgrading from dial-up to DSL.”

Space lasers will help astronauts beam data to the ground at high speeds.
National Journal
Alex Brown
April 14, 2014, 11:22 a.m.

As as­tro­nauts aboard the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion send back more and more data, NASA is work­ing to find a con­nec­tion that can keep up with the flow of in­form­a­tion. The an­swer: lasers.

On Monday, NASA is launch­ing op­tic­al com­mu­nic­a­tion equip­ment aboard SpaceX-3. Once in­stalled, it will al­low ground crews to es­tab­lish a “laser­com” con­nec­tion with the ISS.

Just how fast is a laser-based space con­nec­tion? Well, most space op­er­a­tions cur­rently use ra­dio fre­quen­cies that op­er­ate at 200 to 400 kilo­b­its per second. The OPALS (Op­tic­al Pay­load for Laser­comm Sci­ence) con­nec­tion will come in at 50 mega­bits per second.

“It’s like up­grad­ing from dial-up to DSL,” said NASA’s Bog­dan Oaida.

By com­par­is­on, South Korea tops glob­al av­er­age In­ter­net speed at 22 mega­bits per second.

OPALS isn’t NASA’s first ven­ture in­to laser com­mu­nic­a­tions. A ship called LADEE (which is about to crash) streamed video from the moon a few months ago at a whop­ping 622 mega­bits per second.

In the fu­ture, NASA hopes to trans­mit to and from Mars at a gig­abit per second. That’s the speed Google Fiber claims to of­fer, which it pegs at 100 times the speed of av­er­age broad­band.

For now, as­tro­nauts will have to keep their su­per-fast stream­ing to short cat videos: OPALS will only provide 100 seconds of con­nec­tion at a time as ground in­stru­ments hold a line of site with the sta­tion.