An artist's illustration shows the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) laser beaming data to Earth from its perch on the International Space Station.
In space, a slow data connection can cause frustration and mistakes on the International Space Station and it's forcing scientists to wait 16 months to get all the data back from the New Horizons spacecraft's historic July 14 flyby of Pluto.
But a new, high-precision laser communications system will burst through those old radio-wave barriers for a faster back-and-forth, agency officials say.
A recent NASA experiment probed the effects of communications delays aboard the International Space Station by mimicking the gaps in communication that might happen during a crewed mission to a faraway destination. The researchers found that a 50-second communications delay frustrated space station astronauts and made it more difficult for them to complete tasks.
Going "optical" means communicating with laser beams of near-infrared light — a process that can send a stream of data 10 to 100 times faster than standard radio, according to NASA, and uses much less power than today's fastest, strongest radio signals. The near-infrared rays are not visible to the human eye.
There are ways to overcome challenge of focusing the narrow beam to receivers and interference by clouds though, and the pace of the technology's development on Earth has let researchers take it farther, for a lower cost.
NASA is also looking into pushing the technology much farther away than Earth orbit. An earlier experiment, in October 2013, set up a two-way laser link between New Mexico and NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft, which was orbiting the moon. Cornwell, who managed that mission, said a laser system in development now that could communicate with a satellite around Mars would need a signal about 1 million times more powerful than LADEE's. And the farther out you go, the more of a challenge it will be to aim and decipher the results.
So far, no laser connection has been made farther out than the moon. But that may change soon: The systems needed to do so are in development, and NASA offered a $30 million incentive to include laser communications on the next Discovery-class mission proposals.