Lincoln Laboratory begins work on Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration

MIT Lincoln Laboratory has begun developing a laser communications system that will demonstrate high-data-rate communications between a lunar-orbiting NASA satellite and a ground site in the U.S. The Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD) will address NASA's need for very-high-rate, very-long-distance communications systems that are small enough to fly in space.

The LLCD will demonstrate the transmission of over 600 megabits per second using only a 4-inch telescope and a 1/2-watt laser installed on the lunar-orbiting satellite. The ground receiver will be nearly ten times more efficient than any optical receiver ever demonstrated at these high rates. It will incorporate a pair of two-foot-diameter telescopes, each with its own very-high-performance light detector based on superconducting technology developed in a collaboration between Lincoln Laboratory and the Quantum Nanostructures and Nanofabrication Group at MIT.

The Lincoln Laboratory–built LLCD space terminal will be carried on a NASA technology demonstration and science mission spacecraft named the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), which is planned to launch in late 2011. The LADEE mission will be a collaboration with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA Ames Research Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Current science missions to the Moon and to the planets are constrained by the amount of data they can communicate back over the long distances. Astronauts will also require high-data-rate communications during future space missions. Because the free-space optical spectral bands are not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission or the International Telecommunications Union, extremely high data rates can be transmitted, as long as the system can deliver enough power to the receiver. Since wavelengths are more than 10,000 times shorter in the optical band than in the radio bands, small telescopes and small amounts of laser power can be used to deliver power adequate to support very high data rates, even over long distances.

Lincoln Laboratory has been developing and demonstrating the technologies for free-space and, especially, space-based laser communications for over 25 years. In 2001, a Lincoln Laboratory team built and demonstrated the world's first high-rate, space-based laser communications system. From 2003 to 2005, the Laboratory played a lead role in NASA's Mars Laser Communications Demonstration project, which laid the groundwork for the LLCD.

Posted October 2008

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