On December 7th, 2021, NASA plans to launch and test its $320 million high-speed laser communications device.
The experimental device will be launched aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket as part of a US Space Force mission. It is attached to a Space Force STPSat 6 satellite, the primary payload for the Atlas 5 rocket, which is destined for a geosynchronous orbit above Earth.
Lift-off is due for a two-hour launch window opening at 09:04 UTC on Tuesday, December 7th, from Cape Canaveral. Previously scheduled for December 5th, the launch was delayed due to a leak in the launch pad's kerosene fuel storage system.
The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will begin a two-year series of experiments to test the viability of optical communication links compared to traditional radio-based communications concerning downlinking copious amounts of information faster.
"We have been working on this technology project for a while now, and we are more than ready to see this capability go to its demonstration phase. The objective of this demonstration is to prove out NASA's first bi-directional end-to-end test of a communication system that can transmit data at a rate of 10 to 100 times faster than our current radio frequency baseline systems. And with an optical downlink to transmit data back to us using lasers, this truly is a first of its kind demonstration," said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations in NASA's space technology mission directorate.
Laser links are already used in some satellite constellations to transfer data between satellites. SpaceX's Starlink satellites and the European Space Agency's Copernicus environmental monitoring satellites communicate within their networks optically. However, they use conventional radio signaling to transmit this data back to Earth.
NASA has created two ground stations in Hawaii and California to link with the LCRD, where engineers are testing one-meter optical telescopes to work with the laser link. The laser will work in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, with beams 10,000 times shorter in wavelength than radio waves.
You can read more about the LCRD experiment here.