Lunar Pioneers Will Use Lasers to Phone Home

NASA’s Orion and Gateway will try out optical communications gear for a high-speed connection to Earth

8 min read
Infrared lasers will allow Orion to beam ultrahigh-definition video back to Earth, as shown in this artist’s rendering.
Laser Focus: Infrared lasers will allow Orion to beam ultrahigh-definition video back to Earth, as shown in this artist’s rendering.
Illustration: John MacNeill

With NASA making serious moves toward a permanent return to the moon, it’s natural to wonder whether human settlers—accustomed to high-speed, ubiquitous Internet access—will have to deal with mind-numbingly slow connections once they arrive on the lunar surface. The vast majority of today’s satellites and spacecraft have data rates measured in kilobits per second. But long-term lunar residents might not be as satisfied with the skinny bandwidth that, say, the Apollo astronauts contended with.

To meet the demands of high-definition video and data-intensive scientific research, NASA and other space agencies are pushing the radio bands traditionally allocated for space research to their limits. For example, the Orion spacecraft, which will carry astronauts around the moon during NASA’s Artemis 2 mission in 2022, will transmit mission-critical information to Earth via an S-band radio at 2 megabits per second. “It’s the most complex flight-management system ever flown on a spacecraft,” says Jim Schier, the chief architect for NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program. Still, barely 1 Mb/s will be allocated for streaming video from the mission. That’s about one-fifth the speed needed to stream a high-definition movie from Netflix.

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Istockphoto

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Join this webinar series to learn the most important aspects of modern system-level design for RF and microwave applications in aerospace and defense

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Keysight
Keysight

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