On December 11, NASA engineers eagerly gathered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to watch a cat video.
To their relief, it was. For the first time, high-definition video — of a lab worker’s cat named Taters — was streamed from a distance of 18.6 million miles, or about 80 times the distance from Earth to the moon, a distance never seen before.
This demonstration was part of NASA Deep Space Optical Communications The experiment was aimed at developing infrastructure for communications beyond Earth orbit. For example, if humans were to go to Mars, there would be a need to transmit large amounts of data over long distances. The demonstration marked another step towards such a possibility.
“It’s about the same capability you’d want if you sent an astronaut to the surface of Mars,” said Dr. Abhijit Biswas, project technologist. “You want to keep in touch with them.”
The demonstration was done with the help of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which launched on Oct. DSOC testing uses laser communications, as opposed to traditional radio frequencies, in an effort to transfer large amounts of data over long distances at a faster rate. (Video Daters Chasing a Laser Pointer. In 1928, a statue of the cartoon character Felix the Cat was used for testing. Television transmissions.)
Transmitted data rates of 267 megabits per second are comparable to rates on Earth, which are often between 100 and 300 megabits per second. But Dr Biswas urged caution about the outcome of the demonstration.
“This is the first step,” he said. “There are still significant needs for ground infrastructure and things like that, something that needs to be taken as a proof of concept to make it something functional and reliable.”
Video sent using a Aircraft laser transceiver, one of several pieces of new hardware being used for the first time. The DSOC system consists of three parts: a transceiver installed on the Psych spacecraft and two components on Earth: a ground laser transmitter (about a 90-minute flight from the laboratory) and a ground laser receiver. Palomar Laboratory in Southern California.
“It’s a little mind-blowing that you can finally do it all,” said Dr. Meera Srinivasan, the project’s operations chief.
Dr. Biswas and Dr. Srinivasan, along with other NASA engineers, have been working for decades to develop this technology. The focus was on leveraging optical communications technology already in use in near-Earth orbiting satellites. Initially, before the Psych mission, the signal was so weak that the team hit roadblocks. So NASA developed technologies to extend capabilities. “The new frontier,” said Dr. Biswas.
To start the process for cat video, the ground transmitter first sends out a laser beam. Aiming should be precise. Psyche then locked onto that signal and transmitted the content preloaded by the NASA team back to the receiver. For the transfer to work, it must be done on a cloudless night that will allow for proper visibility.
“There are many small steps,” Dr. Biswas said. “Each one must fall at the right time. That’s the scary part because we’re doing it for the first time. This has never been done before. Oh, we know that’s what happens if you do this. We work our way through all these things. “
He added: “And then when everything works, it seems so easy. Why did we bother in the first place?”
Now, the DSOC project is about to test their limits. By the end of June, NASA engineers expect to be able to send it 10 times farther: 186 million miles.