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Deep space Psyche laser break speed records

  • May 8, 2024
  • 2 min read
Deep space Psyche laser break speed records

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft has sent data through a laser over a record breaking distance, doing so at a faster speed than ever expected. The craft is a further distance than the Sun from Earth.

Radio frequencies are still the most reliable form of communication in deep space. They help us stay in touch with the rovers on Mars, as well as planetary orbiters, and even interstellar space such as the Voyager probes. But it can be slow to send over large amounts of data through the solar system. New Horizons for example took 15 months to transfer 50GB of data from Pluto.

But with laser, the data could, in some cases, travel at light speed. Data can be more densely encoded into light waves than it can with radio waves. This would allow for larger packets to be sent over a shorter period of time. High speed tests so far have beamed data via lasers between satellites and the ground, and between a lunar orbiter to Earth. But longer distances present some challenges.

Now, NASA has broken the distance record for data transmission via lasers. The Psyche spacecraft, launched in October 2023 to explore the origin of planetary cores, sent the data back over 140 million miles (225 million kilometres). That’s 50% longer than the distance to the Sun, and over a dozen times further than the first tests back in November.

The aim was to demonstrate that the spacecraft could transmit up to 1 megabit per second (Mbps). But the results far exceeded the goal, the tests clocked speeds of up to 25 Mbps. The onboard Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) sent a copy of engineering data to Palomar Observatory in California and simultaneously to NASA’s Deep Space Network via radio. 25Mbps is what Netflix recommends to stream its videos in 4K.

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