Space Segment

LCRD’s space-based payload is currently under development at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and will consist of a number of highly sensitive components. Because LCRD is a relay satellite, there will be two sides to the flight payload with an optical terminal on each. That way, one terminal can interface with the user spacecraft and the other can remain directed to ground terminals on Earth. Modems on the payload will translate digital data into laser signals and back again, and the optical module will send those encoded beams of light to the ground or receive them from Earth. The controller electronics will help position the optical modules to the optimum position to receive and transmit data. Because of the two-sided payload, a space switching unit will act as the interface between them, routing data to and from the two optical modules. All of these components will be incorporated into the payload, which will fly on a host spacecraft with other missions.

Radio-frequency communications will also be available for space-to-ground links.

Ground Segment

LCRD will transmit data to, and receive data from, two dedicated ground stations located in Table Mountain, California, and Hawaii. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory partnered with the LCRD project to build and operated the Table Mountain facility.

These ground stations will each house one of the ground terminals. These will also contain modems to translate encoded light back into data. The ground terminals will be aided by the CODEC, a coding and decoding device designed to restore data that was lost in translation or due to weather conditions, up to a point. This helps to ensure the data received is as complete as possible.

History

Laser communications truly began with the invention of lasers in the 1960s, which made the technology possible. Over the years, there have been many applications of laser technology, but laser communications is one of the most promising – it can reduce the size and weight of communications systems, as well as transmit data at rates orders of magnitude higher than standard radio-frequency systems.

NASA, in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, has made great strides to bring laser communications to space missions in recent years. In 2013, NASA launched the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, the first technology demonstration of laser communications enabling data rates five times faster than ever before from beyond low-Earth orbit, aboard the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer mission. The demonstration was an unqualified success. The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration mission is the next step in verifying the efficacy of the technology.

Technology

Optical communication is the future of space communications. The technique uses infrared light to transmit digital data to and from spacecraft, providing a much better data rate than current radio-frequency communications systems. This allows newer missions with much higher data collection rates to transmit large amounts of data to the ground more quickly.

Optical communications can also be adapted to transmit data at the same rate as RF but require much less room and power in the payload. This particular mission will demonstrate everyday operations of a space-based laser communications system, allowing engineers to gain experience overcoming the particular challenges of laser communications: operating to its full potential despite cloud cover, wind, and other environmental factors that might disrupt data transmission.

These capabilities will have broad applications in the future of human exploration further into the solar system.

Our Mission

Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) could revolutionize the way mission-critical data is transmitted to and from spacecraft. The mission is a technology demonstration to verify the longevity of optical communications systems in space, which can provide data rates 10 to 100 times better than traditional radio-frequency systems.

LCRD will serve as a pathfinder relay satellite, similar to the current Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS), which will receive data and transmit it to the ground. A successful LCRD mission would open up the possibility of an optical communications relay satellite constellation similar to TDRS. LCRD is capable of simulating numerous optical communication scenarios and LCRD experiments will involve elements both on the ground and in space.

Learn about opportunities to be a guest investigator on LCRD.

Laser Communications

A relatively new concept, laser communications would encode data into beams of light and transmit them back to Earth.

LCRD Background
Collaborate with us to explore a game-changing new communications system.