Optical Communications With Infrared Lasers

NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) project was launched into geosynchronous orbit, 22,000 miles above Earth, and was hosted aboard the United States. The goal is to put optical communications to the test as an alternative to radio waves.

The LCRD payload, attached to a support assembly flight (LSAF), produces infrared lasers that transmit data to and from Earth. Infrared beams pack data into much tighter waves than RF systems, allowing ground stations to receive more data in a single downlink.

When the weather or space junk isn’t cooperating, optical communications allow switching to RF whenever necessary. Using a 1-meter telescope instead of an 18-meter large steel antenna significantly reduces the cost of building and operating the systems on the ground.

Each LCRD’s two optical communications terminals has its 10-centimeter-diameter optical module or telescope. Each of the two terminals can establish its bidirectional link to something on the other side. In addition, a switch between the two terminals allows data to be switched from one terminal to the other. Later in its mission, the LCRD will act as a relay between the International Space Station’s (ISS) optical communications terminal and ground stations.

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