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NASA shoots lasers at the moon for new communication speed record

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NASA has set a new record for data transmission to and from the moon with a 622Mbps transfer carried over laser beams. The space agency used pulsed lasers to transmit data between a ground station in New Mexico and a spacecraft 239,000 miles away during its recent Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration. The agency was also able to upload error-free data to the LADEE spacecraft — the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer currently orbiting Earth's moon — at a rate of 20Mbps.

NASA achieved a download speed of 622Mbps from the moon

Earlier this year, NASA shot the Mona Lisa into space on a laser beam, but only managed to achieve a rate of 300 bits per second in the process. The success of the LLCD — a mission outlined in September — is "the first step in our roadmap toward building the next generation of space communication capability," according to NASA's Badri Younes. NASA has previously relied on radio frequency communications during its missions, but says that the technology's limitations are obvious as the demand for more data sent from and to space increases.

The LLCD was completed using the moon-orbiting LADEE, but acting as a super-distant phone exchange isn't the LADEE's main job: its prime directive is to investigate atmospheric dust trails astronaut Commander Eugene Cernan once described as "streamers."

Laser communication will eventually allow spacecraft to beam back better images and 3D video from deep space. Although there's no set date for the technology's adoption during standard NASA missions, Younes says the agency is "on the right path to introduce this new capability into operational service soon."