TEMPO, ESC, optical communications 

Small Satellite Makes Big Impact on Optical Infusion

By Kendall Murphy

February 23, 2022

TBIRD Payload in Suitcase Credit: MIT Lincoln Laboratory

Launching this summer, the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) system will follow in the footsteps of NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) and further the advancement of laser communications – also known as optical communications.

The tissue-box-sized CubeSat will demonstrate a direct-to-Earth laser communications link at 200 gigabits per second (Gbps). These rates are far greater than anything experienced on Earth.

Today, NASA satellites rely on radio waves to send information to and from spacecraft. Laser communications will enable missions to send back more data in a single transmission. More data equals more discoveries. With multiple passes a day at 200 Gbps, TBIRD will send back terabytes of data and give NASA more insight into the capabilities of lasers on small satellites.

The TBIRD team is preparing for its upcoming launch, anticipated for June 2022. Recently, they delivered the payload to Tyvak, a company that specializes in small spacecraft development and integration. TBIRD will be a hosted payload on the Pathfinder Technology Demonstration (PTD) 3 mission. During the delivery to Tyvak, the entire payload was able to fit into the overhead bins of a commercial aircraft with space to spare.

As of February 2022, the TBIRD payload and spacecraft are integrated and going through environmental testing. To ensure performance, engineers replicate space through environmental chambers and facilities that confirm the integrated spacecraft'sfunctionality. After testing, the integrated spacecraft will be delivered to its launch site.

TBIRD will hitch a ride to low-Earth-orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket will follow a sun synchronization launch so that the CubeSat enters a “fixed” position relative to the Sun and can pass over the same spot at the same time each day. That spot? Table Mountain, California.

“We are working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory (OCTL) and using one of LCRD’s ground stations to communicate with TBIRD,” said Beth Keer, TBIRD’s project manager. “Although the team will be working around LCRD’s operating schedule, each TBIRD pass takes less than seven minutes, which makes it possible to share the telescope.”

TBIRD is a collaborative effort between NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (MIT-LL) in Boston; and NASA’s Ames Research Center, JPL, and commercial partner, SpaceX in California. MIT-LL engineers developed the system by using commercial off the shelf parts and adapting them for space.

Once in orbit, the pre-loaded data – images and numbers – housed on TBIRD will be transmitted from space to its ground station.

“Missions like LCRD focus on space-to-space relay, but TBIRD will be a great demonstration of space-to-ground capabilities,” Keer said. “Once in orbit, it will take about a month to power on and start its operations. After that, we will be able to downlink massive amounts of data each day, depending on the atmosphere and conditions.”

Keer is NASA’s interface for the TBIRD system and monitors the laser communications progress while meeting its schedule and cost. She provides a second set of eyes for engineers on all technical decisions and ensures payload completion.

Using laser communications to demonstrate a downlink of 200 Gbps is an extremely rare capability and a game-changer for NASA missions. With laser communications supplementing radio, missions will be able to gather and send more data back home than ever before. After launch, TBIRD will prove that big accomplishments can come from small satellites.