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NASA set to test laser-based space communication system

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NASA laser beam
NASA laser beam

How do you improve bandwidth in the far reaches of outer space? Use lasers. NASA is preparing to test a new, laser-based communications system that will link up satellites in space with base stations here at home. Once that connection is made, scientists will be able to transmit data (photos, videos, etc.) at much faster rates than what's possible over traditional radio waves. Six times faster, to be specific.

As NASA explains it:

The LLCD mission will use a highly reliable infrared laser, similar to those used to bring high-speed data over fiber optic cables into our workplaces and homes. Data, sent in the form of hundreds of millions of short pulses of light every second, will be sent by the LADEE spacecraft to any one of three ground telescopes in New Mexico, California and Spain.

It sounds simple until you factor in the slight, 238,900-mile gap separating the satellite and NASA's stations on the ground. Communications could easily fail if something should go awry. But scientists remain optimistic. "We'd like to be able to send high-resolution images and movies and 3D even from satellites that not only orbit the Earth but also from probes that will go to the moon and beyond," said mission manager Don Cornwell during a telecast outlining the plan. "Communicating with radio waves has served us well for the last 50 years but we now have the technology to use light waves to communicate more data," he said.

Download speeds will top out at around 622Mbps, with uploads hovering around 20Mbps. That's equivalent to a top-tier broadband internet package here on Earth, but the faster throughput has scientists excited about the possibilities. Someday you may be tuning into a high-definition, 3D video feed from the surface of Mars.