In an unprecedented achievement, Earth has received a laser-transmitted message from an astounding distance of 16 million kilometers, equivalent to 10 million miles. NASA reports that this distance surpasses the Earth-to-moon span by 40 times, establishing it as the lengthiest demonstration of optical communications to date.
This extraordinary milestone was realized through the application of the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) tool, accompanying NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. Launched on October 13 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Psyche spacecraft successfully relayed a laser-beamed message back to Earth.
On November 14, the Psyche spacecraft established a communication link with the Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. The ‘first light’ event signifies the triumphant initiation of the communication link, with DSOC’s near-infrared photons taking around 50 seconds to traverse from Psyche to Earth during this groundbreaking test.
“Reaching the pivotal milestone of ‘first light’ signifies just one of the critical accomplishments in the ongoing DSOC journey, paving the way for advanced data-rate communications capable of transmitting scientific data, high-definition imagery, and streaming video to support humanity’s next significant leap forward,” commented Trudy Kortes, Director of Technology Demonstrations at NASA Headquarters.
In reflection of this achievement, Abi Biswas, Project Technologist for DSOC at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, expressed, “The attainment of ‘first light’ is a monumental feat. The successful detection of deep space laser photons from DSOC’s flight transceiver aboard Psyche facilitated the transmission of data. This marks our ability to exchange ‘bits of light’ to and from deep space.”
The core mission of the Psyche spacecraft is to investigate and study the distinctive metallic asteroid Psyche, providing invaluable insights into the history of planet formation and core dynamics. This scientific endeavor is planned to extend over a two-year period, encompassing the transmission and reception of laser signals from increasingly remote locations as the spacecraft progresses toward its ultimate destination. Projected to reach the asteroid in 2029, the spacecraft will subsequently enter orbit, initiating a new phase of comprehensive exploration.
In a statement, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson conveyed, “The Psyche mission carries the promise of providing humanity with new perspectives on planet formation, concurrently serving as a testing ground for state-of-the-art technologies applicable to upcoming NASA missions. As we navigate through Asteroid Autumn, NASA’s steadfast commitment to unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos endures, sparking global inspiration through revolutionary discoveries.”
Currently, deep space communication with spacecraft hinges on radio signals transmitted to and received from extensive antennas on Earth. However, these signals face limitations in bandwidth. Through this groundbreaking experiment, NASA envisions a future in which lasers supplant radio waves for transmitting information between Earth and spacecraft, harnessing the power of light for communication. The system is poised to transmit information at speeds 10 to 100 times faster than current space communication equipment, as highlighted by the space agency.