A Look at What’s on Board

LCRD in space.
LCRD will help NASA update how astronauts communicate to and from space, conducting optical communications relays with a future terminal on the International Space Station. Photo credit: United Launch Alliance

Today’s Space Test Program 3 (STP-3) mission contains technology experiments from government, military, and research institutions including two NASA payloads that will help advance the future of space exploration. NASA’s primary payload, hosted on the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program Satellite-6 (STPSat-6) spacecraft, is the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD).

Like technology demonstrations that have come before it, LCRD is a giant step toward making operational laser, or optical, communications a reality. About the size of a king-size mattress, LCRD will send and receive data over infrared lasers at 1.2 gigabits per second from geosynchronous orbit to Earth.

Just how much data can we transmit at once with laser communications? Sending a high-resolution map of Mars to Earth would take around nine weeks with current radio systems onboard spacecraft, but as little as nine days with laser communications. That “speed” (or, more accurately, data rate) is appealing for future human exploration and science missions. The systems also offer a smaller package – laser communications systems can take up less space, weight, and power on a spacecraft. 

LCRD will help make all of that a reality. The mission will operate for at least two years. It will start off “talking” with ground stations in California and Hawaii to test the invisible, near-infrared lasers. Engineers will beam data to and from the satellite (located more than 22,000 miles above Earth) to refine the transmission process, study different operational scenarios, and perfect tracking systems. The information and data are essential for readying a laser communications system for an operational mission, as we can’t replicate the same conditions with tests on the ground. LCRD will also study the effects of clouds (a factor that doesn’t impact current space-to-ground communications) and other potential disruptions to identify viable solutions. 

LCRD will also help NASA update how astronauts communicate to and from space. Later in the mission, LCRD will conduct optical communications relays with a future terminal on the International Space Station. As NASA goes back to the Moon, laser communications can empower sustainable communications architectures and help set us up for a human presence at Mars. 

Take an inside look into the development of LCRD with a laser communications show from NASA EDGE.

NASA’s The Invisible Network podcast will debut a special LCRD series today, with additional episodes released over the following four Wednesdays. The podcast will highlight the future of the laser communications technologies demonstrated by this mission and the people behind it.

Also hitching a ride on STPSat-6 is a joint NASA-U.S. Naval Research Laboratory experiment dedicated to studying the origins of solar energetic particles (SEPs) — the Sun’s most dangerous form of radiation.

UVSC Pathfinder — short for Ultraviolet Spectro-Coronagraph Pathfinder — will peer at the lowest regions of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, where SEPs are thought to originate. UVSC Pathfinder is the latest addition to NASA’s fleet of heliophysics observatories. NASA heliophysics missions study a vast, interconnected system from the Sun to the space surrounding Earth and other planets, and to the farthest limits of the Sun’s constantly flowing stream of solar wind. UVSC Pathfinder provides key information on SEPs, enabling future space exploration.

To stay updated about LCRD and laser communications, visit: https://www.nasa.gov/lasercomms.