NASA to beam video from space station with a laser beam

Space agency works to find better way to communicate with future deep space missions

In an effort to fundamentally change the way it will communicate with future deep space missions, NASA will use a laser beam to send a video from the International Space Station to Earth on Thursday.

NASA announced late Wednesday that it will beam enhanced-definition video via laser from the space station to the Table Mountain Observatory in Wrightwood, Calif. From there, the video will be transmitted to the mission team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This is the first planned official transmission of this mission, which has been dubbed Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science or OPALS.

The transmission, according to NASA, is scheduled to take place between 11:20 p.m. and 11:23 p.m. ET -- while the space station is visible passing over the Los Angeles area in the twilight sky.

In April, the SpaceX cargo spacecraft carried equipment needed for the laser communications test to the space station.

Optical laser communications are one of the emerging technologies NASA is testing. The new laser communications initiative is a key part of the agency's Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is focused on developing technology for future space missions, as well as for life on Earth.

With lasercom, data is transmitted via laser beams, achieving data rates 10 to 1,000 times higher than current space communications, which rely on current radio frequency transmissions, NASA noted.

"Optical communications have the potential to be a game-changer," said mission manager Matt Abrahamson, in an April statement. "It's like upgrading from dial-up to DSL. Our ability to generate data has greatly outpaced our ability to downlink it. Imagine trying to download a movie at home over dial-up. It's essentially the same problem in space, whether we're talking about low-Earth orbit or deep space."

Abrahamson noted that many of the latest deep space missions send data back and forth at 200 to 400 kilobits per second. The new laser technology is expected to transmit data at 50 megabits per second.

Since one megabit is equal to 1,024 kilobits, that means the new communications should be up to 256 times faster.

NASA has been focused on improving its in-space communications.

Last October, the space agency launched a lunar probe that tested what could eventually become an outer space Internet.

NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory ran what the space agency called a limited test of a high-data-rate laser communication system. It was the agency's first laser communications test.

Similar systems could be used to speed up future satellite communications and deep space communications with robots and human exploration crews.

The video being transmitted on Thursday, entitled "Hello, World," will later be available on YouTube.

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

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