Explained: What is NASA’s new communications system LCRD; its importance

What is the News?

NASA has launched its new Laser Communications Relay Demonstration(LCRD).

What is Laser Communications Relay Demonstration(LCRD)?

LCRD is NASA’s first-ever laser communications system.

Purpose: It has been launched to help demonstrate the benefits of space-to-ground laser communications also called optical communications.

Orbit: The LCRD payload is hosted onboard the US Department of Defense’s Space Test Program Satellite 6 (STPSat-6). It will be in a geosynchronous orbit over 35,000 km above Earth.

Location of the Laser Systems: Unlike radio frequency communications, optical signals cannot penetrate cloud coverage. That’s why, LCRD will transmit data to two ground stations, located in California and Hawaii. These locations were chosen for their minimal cloud coverage. 

Significance: Currently, most NASA spacecraft use radio frequency communications to send data. But with the LASER communications capability further proven, NASA can start to implement laser communications on more missions, making it a standardized way to send and receive data.

What is the difference between Laser vs Radio Communications?

Firstly, laser communications and radio waves use different wavelengths. The laser uses infrared light and has a shorter wavelength than radio waves. This will help the transmission of more data in a short time.

Examples:

  • It would take roughly nine weeks to transmit a completed map of Mars back to Earth with current radio frequency systems. With lasers, it can accelerate that to about nine days.
  • Using lasers, LCRD can send data to Earth at 1.2 gigabits-per-second (Gbps). At this speed, it will take less than a minute to download a movie.

Secondly, Optical or Laser communication systems are smaller in size, weight, and require less power compared with radio instruments. A smaller size means more room for science instruments. Less weight means a less expensive launch. Less power means less drain on the spacecraft’s batteries. Hence, LCRD enabled missions will have unparalleled communications capabilities.

Source: This post is based on the article “Explained: What is NASA’s new communications system LCRD; its importance published in Indian Express on 8th December 2021.

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