NASA's moon probe starts outer space Internet test

Spacecraft enters lunar orbit and begins test on next generation laser communications system

NASA's newly launched lunar probe has begun testing what could eventually become an outer space Internet.

NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory said the probe on Thursday night began a limited test of a high-data-rate laser communication system. It's the U.S. space agency's first laser communications test.

If it works as planned, NASA plans to use similar systems to speed up future satellite communications and deep space communications with robots and human exploration crews.

The spacecraft, which launched on Sept. 6 from the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va., reached lunar orbit on Oct. 6. A series of maneuvers put the probe into the proper orbit for engineers on Earth to check out its instruments and set up the laser communications test.

The test is expected to run through the middle of November, said Dewayne Washington, a spokesman for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"They're testing from different vantage points, different weather conditions," Washington said. "We want to gauge how well it would work under different conditions. it'll take a while to do that."

"Everything, so far, is going well," he added.

The space probe's main mission is to study the moon's atmosphere, though officials say testing the laser communications system also a major undertaking.

Using laser communications instead of radio systems would enable robots, such as the Curiosity Mars rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and astronauts to send and receive far greater data loads fron space, whether in orbit around Earth, on the moon or on a distant asteroid.

Two-way laser communications systems can deliver six times more data with 25% less power than the best radio systems, Don Cornwell, Lunar Laser Communications Mission Manager at Goddard, said in an earlier interview.

Laser communications uses devices are half the weight of today's radio devices on rockets, rovers and spacecraft, Cornwell said. Weight is a critical factor in the performance of on such craft.

Once the laser communications test is complete, NASA engineers will adjust the spacecraft's orbit to better position it for it to begin scientific experiments on the moon's atmosphere.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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