NASA nails fastest data transmission in space - 1000 movies in 6 minutes

Using lasers, NASA and its partners achieved data transmission at a record speed of 200 gigabits per second, unlocking opportunities for further space exploration.

Fiber optic-based laser communications have become the go-to choice for achieving the fastest data networks on Earth.

However, high-speed connections in space are still a work in progress. For example, NASA's most commonly-used technology is the far less potent radio wave.

Data transmission using radio waves uses similar methods to radio broadcasting or cell phone communication with a cell tower.

With NASA's ambitious plans for establishing a long-term presence on the Moon and undertaking future missions to Mars, increasing communication efficiency is essential to facilitate scientific exploration.

Recently, scientists achieved a new record in data transfer speed by moving away from radio waves and using the oscillations of light waves in lasers, which enables more data to be sent back in a single link to Earth.

Volume of data sent back in a single link to Earth with laser communications | Source: NASA
Volume of data sent back in a single link to Earth with laser communications in comparison with radio | Source: NASA

Laser communications were made possible by the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) system. The system was launched into orbit aboard NASA's Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) satellite as part of SpaceX's Transporter-5 rideshare mission in Florida in May 2022.

During a single six-minute pass over a ground station, TBIRD has the capability to transmit multiple terabytes of test data to Earth, equivalent to approximately 1,000 high-definition movies.

NASA’s TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) payload. | Credit: MIT Lincoln Laboratory
NASA’s TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) payload. | Credit: MIT Lincoln Laboratory

NASA believes that increased data transmission capacity provides scientists on Earth with a broader range of information to study, including imagery from distant celestial bodies, data on space radiation, and other valuable insights.

These expanded scientific findings are crucial in advancing our understanding and paving the way for future human endeavors and exploring other worlds.

“Achieving 100 Gbps in June was groundbreaking, and now we’ve doubled that data rate – this capability will change the way we communicate in space,” said Beth Keer, the mission manager for TBIRD at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“Just imagine the power of space science instruments when they can be designed to fully take advantage of the advancements in detector speeds and sensitivities, furthering what artificial intelligence can do with huge amounts of data. Laser communications is the missing link that will enable the science discoveries of the future,”

Keer said.

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