NASA’s LADEE launch holds key to faster, big data laser communications

NASA successfully launched the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) on Sept. 6 from NASA's Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. While the primary mission of the robotic explorer is to gather details about the lunar atmosphere, LADEE will also test groundbreaking laser communication capabilities. Onboard LADEE is NASA's Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration, which could have big implications for deep space communications and intelligence gathering.

Contrary to standard radio frequency platforms, LLCD will attempt to demonstrate successful two-way communication using lasers, expanding the possibility of transmitting huge amounts of data more quickly and clearly than ever before. In recent years, RF has become limited, particularly within the Defense Department, as demands for bandwidth continue to outstrip supply.

LLCD's main objective is to transmit hundreds of millions of bits of data per second from the moon to Earth. Laser communications built into the system are designed to send six times more data using a smaller transmitter with 25 percent less power compared to state-of-the-art RF system. LLCD will beam a laser, about four inches across when it is transmitted from LADEE, to Earth, where it will grow to be two to three miles across at the ground station.

"Lasers are also more secure and less susceptible to interference and jamming," added Don Cornwell, LLCD manager in a NASA press release.

LADEE will take 30 days to reach the moon and LLCD operations will commence shortly after arrival into lunar orbit. LLCD will perform for 30 days out of LADEE's 100-day mission.

"It [LLCD] could have 3-D, high definition video signals transmitted to Earth providing essentially 'telepresence' to a human controller on the ground," Cornwell said. "This unique ability developed by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory) has incredible application possibilities and we are very excited to get this instrument off the ground."

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