Laser and Radio Signals from the Depths of Space Received by NASA

NASA has been successfully testing a new communication system using its Psyche spacecraft over the past few months. The system, known as Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC), employs a near-infrared laser to send messages back to Earth. The first successful test of this system was conducted in November and detected a laser signal from a distance of 10 million miles.

DSOC has a significant edge over radio communications as it provides better bandwidth speeds, enabling quicker data reception. However, due to certain technological challenges, NASA researchers are mulling over the possibility of combining both radio and laser communications.

The latest test conducted by NASA received data from a distance twice as far as the previous test, i.e., 32 million kilometers (20 million miles). Furthermore, on January 1, a picture of the Psyche team was downloaded at a speed of 15.63 megabits per second, which is 40 times faster than the standard radio frequency.

According to Amy Smith, NASA’s Deep Space Network Deputy Manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the hybrid antenna has proven to be successful at locking onto and tracking the DSOC downlink since the technology demo was launched. This also marks the first time synchronous radio and optical frequency deep space communications have been demonstrated.

The communication system achieved these results through the use of a small device composed of seven hexagonal mirrors fitted onto the existing antenna. The system uses a combination of mirrors, precise sensors, and cameras to actively align and direct lasers from deep space into a fiber reaching the detector.

The goal is for NASA to track Psyche when it is 2.5 times the distance Earth is from the Sun. Barzia Tehrani, the communications ground systems deputy manager and delivery manager for the hybrid antenna at JPL, stated that the inclusion of optical frequencies in the DSN’s giant antennas around the globe is the most feasible next step. This will effectively convert communication roads into highways, saving time, money, and resources.

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