NASA’s Laser Communication Terminal on the Space Station Successfully Establishes Initial Connection

A NASA technology experiment on the International Space Station (ISS) has successfully completed its first laser link with an in-orbit laser relay system on December 5, 2023. This achievement marks the completion of NASA’s first two-way, end-to-end laser relay system.

The experiment, known as the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), and the new space station demonstration, called ILLUMA-T (Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal), successfully exchanged data for the first time. The purpose of LCRD and ILLUMA-T is to demonstrate how a user mission, in this case, the space station, can benefit from a laser communications relay located in geosynchronous orbit.

Laser communications, also known as optical communications, utilize infrared light instead of traditional radio waves to transmit and receive signals. The use of infrared light allows spacecraft to transmit more data in each transmission due to its tighter wavelength. Laser communications significantly increase the efficiency of data transfer and can lead to faster scientific discoveries.

On November 9, NASA’s SpaceX 29th commercial resupply services mission launched cargo and new science experiments, including ILLUMA-T, to the ISS. After its arrival, the payload was installed onto the station’s Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility.

ILLUMA-T and LCRD are part of the NASA Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program’s effort to demonstrate how laser communications technologies can greatly benefit science and exploration missions.

Dr. Jason Mitchell, director of SCaN’s Advanced Communications and Navigation Technology division, stated that

“ILLUMA-T’s first link with LCRD – known as first light – is the latest demonstration proving that laser communications is the future. Laser communications will not only return more data from science missions but could serve as NASA’s critical, two-way link to keep astronauts connected to Earth as they explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”

Shortly after the installation of ILLUMA-T on the space station, engineers began conducting on-orbit testing to ensure the payload operated as expected. It is now successfully communicating with LCRD, a relay launched in 2021 that has conducted over 300 experiment configurations to help NASA refine laser communications technologies. LCRD and ILLUMA-T are exchanging data at a rate of 1.2 gigabits-per-second.

David Israel, a NASA space communications and navigation architect, stated that

“We have demonstrated that we can overcome the technical challenges for successful space communications using laser communications. We are now performing operational demonstrations and experiments that will allow us to optimize our infusion of proven technology into our missions to maximize our exploration and science.”

The LCRD experiments involve collaboration with industry, academia, and other government agencies. ILLUMA-T is the first in-space user experiment for LCRD. NASA is still accepting experiments to work with LCRD, and interested parties can contact [email protected] for more information.