Purchasing new hardware? Read our latest product comparisons

"Hello, World" – Video beamed from ISS using laser-based communications


June 8, 2014

Artist's concept of OPALS in operation (Image: NASA)

Artist's concept of OPALS in operation (Image: NASA)

Image Gallery (12 images)

While the International Space Station (ISS) may be mankind’s outpost for the conquest of space, it still leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to a decent YouTube connection. That’s because, for all its sophistication, the station’s communications system is still based on 1960s radio technology and has all the bandwidth of a soda straw. This changed on Thursday as NASA took a step into the video age with the test of its Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) demonstrator, which used a laser to beam a video to Earth in seconds instead of the usual minutes.

Developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, OPALS is designed to test the effectiveness of lasers as a higher-bandwidth substitute for radio waves. It was delivered to the ISS on April 20 by an unmanned Dragon space freighter and is currently undergoing a 90-day test. The system has 10 to 1,000 times greater capacity for data transmission than radio links.

For the test, OPALS transmitted the “Hello, World” video from the ISS to a ground station on Earth. In some ways, it was more difficult than the Lunar test undertaken by the LADEE lunar probe last year. The station orbits Earth at an altitude of about 260 mi (418 km) at 17,500 mph (28,000 km/h). The result is that the target is sliding across the laser’s field of view much faster than it did for the lunar test.

"It’s like trying to use a laser to point to an area that's the diameter of a human hair from 20-to-30 feet away while moving at half-a-foot per second," says Bogdan Oaida, the OPALS systems engineer at JPL. "It’s all about the pointing."

The OPALS system sought out and locked onto a laser beacon from the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory ground station at the Table Mountain Observatory in Wrightwood, California. It then transmitted its own 2.5-watt, 1,550-nanometer laser and modulated it to send the video at a peak rate of 50 megabits per second. According to NASA, OPALS transmitted the video in 3.5 seconds instead of the 10 minutes that conventional radio would have required.

"It's incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station," said Matt Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager at JPL. "We look forward to experimenting with OPALS over the coming months in hopes that our findings will lead to optical communications capabilities for future deep space exploration missions."

The video below includes the first OPALS video message.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

I wonder why that particular IR frequency was chosen?

Abby Normal

I've often wondered why we waste time and money on SETI. We might as well be looking for smoke signals. A technological civilization will only use radio for a few generations before moving to some other form of communication. Laser is the logical next step, but beyond that, who knows? Gravity wave communication? Quantum communication?


The most contested part of this idea is that the beaming of the energy down to Earth could somehow be turned into a weapon and used to "cook" those on the ground... + Here is the first person to suggest that Energy from the Space could be beamed to Earth:


Peter Glaser, Who Envisioned Space Solar Power, Dies at 90 By WILLIAM YARDLEY JUNE 5, 2014

Post a Comment

Login with your Gizmag account:

Related Articles
Looking for something? Search our articles