Monday, June 5, 2023

NASA Laser Com-Link Doubles Satellite Data Speed


 Artist's rendering of a NASA laser communications link aboard the International Space Station. (Image Sources: NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory,, By NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory - NASA's OPALS to Beam Data From Space Via Laser, Public Domain,

By Glenn A. Walsh

Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

NASA, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other institutions have doubled the rate of data down-loads from an Earth satellite launched last year. A space laser now allows data from the satellite to be received at a rate of 200 gigabytes per second, which doubles the rate of 100 gigabytes per second reached last year.

For the advance of scientific research, Jason Mitchell, an aerospace engineer with NASA's Space Communications and Navigation Program, says of the new milestone “more data means more discoveries”.

During a satellite's typical 5-minute pass overhead, the new data rate will allow the transmission of more than 2 terabytes of data. This is the equivalent of 1,000 high-definition motion pictures.

Within a month of reaching orbit in June of 2022, the laser com-link reached 100 gigabytes per second which is 100 times faster than Internet speeds using fiber optics in most cities and more than 1,000 times faster than traditional satellite radio data speeds.

This advancement comes from the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) System, which was launched into Earth orbit in May of last year on NASA's Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) satellite, which uses an infrared laser. TBIRD and PTD-3 were launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on 2022 May 25, via SpaceX's Transporter-5 launch vehicle.

The PTD-3 satellite is a ~26.45-pound / 12-kilogram Cube-Sat. The satellite is described as the size of 2 cereal boxes stacked on top of each other. TBIRD is just the size of a tissue box.

This new laser communications system should help with data coming from experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). Currently, much of this data must be returned to Earth via storage drives on cargo spacecraft, due to limitations on down-link rates. TBIRD can particularly help with data regarding Earth climate and resources, as well as astronomy and astrophysics data.

One problem that scientists had to overcome was the technical problems of laser communications. Laser beams tend to distort when traveling from space, due to atmospheric effects and weather conditions. This can cause power loss and data loss.

Scientists have developed an “Automatic Repeat Request” (ARQ) protocol to control the data transmission. A low data rate up-link signal from the ground station alerts the satellite to re-transmit a certain block of data. To increase efficiency, the protocol lets the satellite know which specific data blocks need to be re-sent, so the whole transmission does not have to be repeated.

Another problem with laser beams is their tendency to form narrower beams than radio signals. TBIRD provides the satellite with the proper orientation information, so the laser beam is directed to a specific ground station.

TBIRD can support multiple channels through wavelength separation. This is how TBIRD reached 200 gigabytes per second by using two 100 gigabytes per second channels.

This new laser communications technology can have several new applications:

  • Imaging Black Holes with the Event Horizon Telescope;

  • Satellites in geostationary orbit;

  • Missions to the Moon and eventually Mars and other Solar System destinations;

  • Atmospheric data links: building-to-building and mountaintop-to mountaintop (where the laying of fiber optic cable is not feasible due to technical or financial reasons).

Internet Links to Additional Information ---

Laser Communication in Space:

Link >>>

NASA News Release - TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) System:

Link >>>

MIT TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) System:

Link >>>

NASA Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator:


Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss          

               Monday, 2023 June 5.

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Glenn A. Walsh, Informal Science Educator & Communicator                                                               (For more than 50 years! - Since Monday Morning, 1972 June 12):
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Formerly Astronomical Observatory Coordinator & Planetarium Lecturer, original Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), America's fifth major planetarium and Pittsburgh's science & technology museum from 1939 to 1991.
Formerly Trustee, Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, Pennsylvania, the fourth of only five libraries where both construction and endowment funded by famous industrialist & philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
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