ESC, TEMPO, optical communications, laser communication 

NASA to Increase Data Transfer with the Terabyte Infrared Delivery System

By Kendall Murphy

March 29, 2021

With high-data-rate optical communications, NASA is increasing data return and expanding the agency’s capacity for discovery.

Optical communications systems use infrared light to transmit critical science and mission data over long distances. Optical systems will provide significant benefits for missions, including increased data rates and by being faster, lighter, more flexible and more secure. Optical communications will supplement radio frequency communications, which most NASA missions use today.

NASA’s Terabyte Infrared Delivery (TBIRD) system will demonstrate a direct-to-Earth optical communications link at burst rates of up to 200 gigabits per second (Gbps). No bigger than a standard shoebox, the 3U CubeSat - a miniaturized satellite – will transmit data from low-Earth-orbit to a ground station on Earth.

“In the past, we’ve designed our instruments and spacecraft around the constraint of how much data we can get down or back from space to Earth,” said TBIRD Mission Manager Beth Keer. “With optical communications, we’re blowing that out of the water as far as the amount of data we can bring back. It is truly a game-changing capability.”

Being able to demonstrate an optical downlink of 200 Gbps is an extremely rare capability. With multiple passes a day, TBIRD will send back terabytes of data and give NASA more insight into the capabilities of lasers on small satellites. While optical communications aren’t technically faster, at higher data rates, more information can be received at once in a single downlink. TBIRD leverages recent innovations in fiber optic networks to complete this demonstration from a compact, low-cost payload.

TBIRD’s optical communications capabilities will enable a large amount of raw data to be brought back to Earth. Now, there is the possibility to use artificial intelligence to process the data in new ways, gaining more information and new insights. Using artificial intelligence on raw data can tease out information because of improvements in processing power, it can discover patterns in large amounts of data much faster than older methods. These data capabilities will have significant impact on science, exploration, and technology missions.

TBIRD is a collaborative effort. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is partnering with Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (MIT-LL) and NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, to create and fly TBIRD. Currently, MIT-LL is building and testing the payload at their facility and Ames is providing the spacecraft bus, which will host TBIRD. To create TBIRD, engineers took existing non-flight hardware, redesigned, and tested it to make the parts ready for space.

Recently, TBIRD has made significant testing strides, bringing the mission closer to its anticipated launch later this year. This testing included ground station communication testing, where engineers used a TBIRD test unit and communicated with its ground station approximately three miles away. All tests indicate that the payload and ground station can successfully communicate - even on inclement days where cloud coverage could potentially disrupt the optical signals.

TBIRD is expected to launch in December 2021, and will hitch a ride on a U.S. Space Force rocket and operate for at least six months. TBIRD will showcase the unique data capabilities of optical communications and further prove that small satellite can have a big impact.