NASA has successfully conducted the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment, transmitting a near-infrared laser with test data from a remarkable distance of nearly 10 million miles to Caltech's Palomar Observatory's Hale Telescope. This achievement sets a new record for optical communications, surpassing the distance between the Moon and Earth by a factor of 40. The DSOC system is installed on the Psyche spacecraft, which is currently en route to the main asteroid belt. Both the DSOC and Psyche missions are managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The significant "first light" milestone was reached when the flight laser transceiver on Psyche locked onto an uplink laser beacon from JPL's Table Mountain Facility. This allowed for accurate aiming of the downlink laser at Palomar. The DSOC experiment aims to develop high-bandwidth data transmission capabilities capable of sending scientific information and high-definition imagery during future space missions. With the successful activation of the ground and flight transceiver systems, the DSOC team will now concentrate on improving the control systems for the downlink laser. Their focus is on maintaining high-bandwidth data transmission to Palomar at varying distances from Earth.
Encoded within the laser's photons, the data will be extracted by the Hale Telescope using advanced signal-processing techniques. The DSOC experiment aims to achieve data transmission rates 10 to 100 times faster than current radio frequency systems. With the utilization of near-infrared lasers, larger amounts of data can be transmitted. This groundbreaking advancement in communication technology will greatly support future space exploration missions while enhancing the capabilities of science instruments.Dr. Jason Mitchell, director of NASA's Advanced Communications and Navigation Technologies Division, explains the significant benefits of optical communication for space missions. This technology allows for improved data transmission and enables human exploration of deep space. Now, for the first time, the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology is being tested in deep space, following its successful testing in low Earth orbit.
DSOC operates by directing laser beams over vast distances, requiring precise aiming similar to tracking a small object with a laser pointer from a long distance. Additionally, the DSOC demonstration takes into account the time it takes for light to travel from the spacecraft to Earth, which can be up to 20 minutes due to the immense distances involved. As both the spacecraft and Earth may have moved during this time, adjustments in the lasers' targeting are necessary.
Abi Biswas, the project technologist for DSOC at JPL, expresses satisfaction with the achievement of detecting deep space laser photons and successfully exchanging data during the testing process. DSOC is part of a series of optical communication demonstrations funded by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Space Communications and Navigation program.
The Psyche mission, led by Arizona State University and managed by JPL, is the 14th mission selected under NASA's Discovery Program. The launch service was managed by NASA's Launch Services Program, with Maxar Technologies providing the spacecraft chassis.