On November 9, a laser communications terminal developed by Lincoln Laboratory was launched on a NASA-built payload aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicle. The terminal, called ILLUMA-T, will participate in a technology demonstration on the International Space Station (ISS) to showcase the advantages of laser communications for missions in low Earth orbit (LEO). The goal is to demonstrate that ILLUMA-T can enable high data-transmission rates between the ISS and NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) satellite in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), as well as ground stations on Earth.
Laser communications offer significant advantages over radio frequencies (RF) currently used for space communication. Laser light can transmit data at rates 10 to 100 times faster than RF, allowing for faster transmission of data such as images, videos, and sensor outputs. Laser communication systems are also smaller, lighter, and require less power, resulting in lower mission costs.
This mission builds on previous laser communications efforts by NASA, including the Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD) in 2013, where data was transmitted using laser light between the moon and Earth. The design of the original LLCD terminal was modified to work on a LEO satellite, with improvements made to its field of regard and manufacturability. The terminal, now called MAScOT, was then installed on the ISS as ILLUMA-T for its first space deployment.
Over the next six months, the ILLUMA-T terminal will undergo installation and commissioning on the ISS. The team will then conduct laser communications experiments to test the transmission of data between ILLUMA-T and LCRD, both to the ground and from the ground back up to the ISS.
This mission marks an important step in the development of laser communications technology for space missions, with potential for faster and more efficient data transmission in future space exploration endeavors.