Lasers in our Future

by Paul Gilster on December 31, 2013

Best wishes for the New Year! I got a resigned chuckle — not a very mirthful one, to be sure — out of a recent email from Adam Crowl, who wrote: “Look at that date! Who imagined we’d still be stuck in LEO in 2014???” Indeed. It’s hard to imagine there really was a time when the ‘schedule’ set by 2001: A Space Odyssey seemed about right. Mars at some point in the 80’s, and Jupiter by the turn of the century, a steady progression outward that, of course, never happened. The interstellar community hopes eventually to reawaken those dreams.

Yesterday’s post on laser communications makes the point as well as any that incremental progress is being made, even if at an often frustrating pace. We need laser capabilities to take the burden off a highly overloaded Deep Space Network and drastically improve our data transfer and networking capabilities in space. The Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) equipment aboard the LADEE spacecraft transmitted data from lunar orbit to Earth at a 622 megabits per second (Mbps) rate in October, a download rate six times faster than any radio systems that had been flown to the Moon. It was an extremely encouraging outcome.

“These first results have far exceeded our expectation,” said Don Cornwell, LLCD manager. “Just imagine the ability to transmit huge amounts of data that would take days in a matter of minutes. We believe laser-based communications is the next paradigm shift in future space communications.”

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LLCD is actually an overall name for the ground- and space-based components of this laser experiment. What’s aboard the LADEE spacecraft is the Lunar Laser Space Terminal (LLST), which communicates with a Lunar Laser Ground Terminal (LLGT) located in White Sands, New Mexico, a joint project developed between MIT and NASA. There are also two secondary terminals, one at the European Space Agency’s La Teide Observatory (Tenerife), the other at JPL’s Table Mountain Facility in California, where previous laser experiments like GOLD — the Ground-to-Orbit Laser Communication Demonstration — have taken place.

The laser communication between LLCD and ground stations on Earth is the longest two-way laser communication ever demonstrated and a step in the direction of building the next generation of communications capability we’ll need as we explore the Solar System. Imagine data rates a hundred times faster than radio frequencies can provide operating at just half the power of radio and taking up far less space aboard the vehicle. Improvements in image resolution and true moving video would radically improve our view of planetary targets.

Laser methods are proving as workable as we had hoped. The LLCD demonstrated error-free communications during daylight, and could operate when the Moon was within three degrees of the Sun as seen from Earth. Communications were also possible when the Moon was less than four degrees from the horizon as seen from the ground station, and were successful even through thin layers of cloud, which NASA describes as ‘an unexpected bonus.’ A final plus: The demonstrated ability to hand off the laser connection from one ground station to another.

The scientific benefits of lasers are tangible but they’re matched by what could be a rise in public engagement with space if we can produce a networked infrastructure in which video plays a major role. Immersive gaming systems give way to the thought of rovers sending back high-resolution video from exotic places like Titan or Callisto — is this one way to rekindle the passion for exploration that sometimes seems to have died with Apollo? Robotic missions lack the immediacy and glamor of human crews but high bandwidth may help make up the slack, perhaps building momentum for later crewed missions to many of the same targets.

Up next is the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which recently passed a preliminary design review. LRCD is to be a long-duration optical mission that will tweak optical relay services over a two-year period onboard a commercial satellite built by Space Systems Loral. We’re in the transitional period between demonstrators and reliable flight hardware. After its 2017 launch, LCRD will be positioned above the equator to carry that process forward.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob December 31, 2013 at 13:48

Yes, I vividly remember as an interested 13 year old reading in the World Book about a future manned Mars landing in the 1985 timeframe. That was in 1967. I will turn 60 in 2014 and it is questionable if I will live long enough to see a human Mars landing even if I make 100.

As for the Moon, in five years we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the great event with no one on the Moon to participate! By now there should have been a thriving international community of thousands of souls living and working on the Moon in a permanent self sustaining colony. Our first off-world civilization. Alas….

Rangel December 31, 2013 at 14:15

That’s great! I just don’t get why they didn’t developed it earlier, you know… isn’t that dificult considering that it took many decades to finally someone try something, and i always had a feeling that laser communications is the next step.

I hope this increase the mood for more space missions, specially efforts for future manned lunar missions by 2020′s and Mars by 2030′s. I still feels a lack of incentive for all the space agencies in the world, hope it will change now.

Bob Sevigny December 31, 2013 at 16:05

Happy New Year one and all. And thank you Paul Gilster for creating and managing one of the best and most informative web sites on the Internet. It is a jewel and essential reading for anyone, like myself, interested in making interstellar travel a reality. Keep up the good work!

David A. Czuba December 31, 2013 at 16:24

Happy New Year’s Eve! Now where’s my jet pack and security moat filled with bass with lasers on their heads? Reading Ronald Brown’s “Lasers: Tools of modern technology” (1968), part of a series presenting topics to the lay reader, one discovers that atmospheric particles and turbulence are major obstacles for laser communications from orbital and Earth-based stations. I suspect that the demonstrators mentioned use pulse modulation to overcome drawbacks. Amplitude or frequency modulation would suffer from refraction in the atmosphere. It is very exciting to know these demonstrator systems are operating above expectations. The second last paragraph is insightful and optimistic about the potential for high-bandwidth communications offering to increase popular interest in space as well as involve citizen science.

Paul Gilster December 31, 2013 at 20:22

All best wishes to those checking in here on New Year’s Eve — you should be out celebrating, but thanks for coming by! My deepest appreciation to the readers who make Centauri Dreams possible. Here’s to an astounding 2014!

coacervate December 31, 2013 at 22:40

For me CD is a big part of my holiday season. Looks to others like i’m “working on the computer again”. heh, Highest marks for outstanding, thought provoking reading. Speaking of which, what are you reading these days?

Paul Gilster January 1, 2014 at 10:09

As to reading, coacervate, I’ve just finished up Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements. Terrific book — Kean is a great storyteller and a scrupulous reporter. Highly recommended. Recently I’ve begun Edward Dolnick’s The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World. Not far enough along to have formed a real opinion yet. Up next: Chris Impey’s Dreams of Other Worlds, just out from Princeton. I wish I could get the old ‘What I Am Reading’ plugin to work right so I could display these on the main page, but it’s not being maintained, and it’s way out of date.

coacervate January 1, 2014 at 16:51

Thank you very much. I remember we touched on the loss of that plug in some time ago. As I remember quite a few of us lamented at that time…Well that first title is too quizzical to resist…kindle at the ready!

Best wishes

A. A. Jackson January 1, 2014 at 23:17

You know Adam, even the world of Clarke’s 2010 passed into an alternate universe , as 2001:A Space Odyssey did in 2001! Tho that is a different 2010 alternate universe from 2001′s.

Bonne année

(Until International Telecommunication Union makes us go to Atomic Time!
Yup that’s coming.)

Paul Titze January 2, 2014 at 0:56

Hi Paul,

All the best for 2014, thanks for the many interesting articles and keep up the good work. Yes according to the movies we should have been to Mars by now and have an outpost near Jupiter’s orbit.

Our continued reliance on chemical rockets to get hardware into LEO is partly to blame. Let’s hope 2014 will be a productive year Propulsion Physics.

Cheers, Paul.

ljk January 2, 2014 at 10:32

Bob said on December 31, 2013 at 13:48:

“Yes, I vividly remember as an interested 13 year old reading in the World Book about a future manned Mars landing in the 1985 timeframe. That was in 1967. I will turn 60 in 2014 and it is questionable if I will live long enough to see a human Mars landing even if I make 100.”

If you can settle for a manned orbital mission of Mars, then you and others may get your wish by 2018:

http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=26682

“As for the Moon, in five years we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the great event with no one on the Moon to participate!”

No humans, perhaps, but very likely machines will be there to do that job. See here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_proposed_missions_to_the_Moon

As you can see from the above list, there is a chance that very wealthy tourists might do a swing around Earth’s natural satellite by 2019. At $100 million a person.

“By now there should have been a thriving international community of thousands of souls living and working on the Moon in a permanent self sustaining colony. Our first off-world civilization. Alas…”

As one who grew up with Apollo, Major Matt Mason, and the promises of 2001 along with the insistence by NASA that we would have humans on Mars in the 1980s, I cannot help but agree with you.

ljk January 2, 2014 at 10:37

A. A. Jackson said on January 1, 2014 at 23:17:

“You know Adam, even the world of Clarke’s 2010 passed into an alternate universe , as 2001:A Space Odyssey did in 2001! Tho that is a different 2010 alternate universe from 2001′s.”

I felt this was largely a copout on Clarke’s part. At the end of one of the 2001 series novels, the Monolith from Africa on display began to open up! Yet we will never know now what Clarke had in mind for that event, at least in this universe.

As for the final novel, 3001, I surprised at his *lack* of imagination for that world one thousand years hence. Even if we do not have the Singularity before then, should humans and technology survive and thrive, both will likely be far more different than what we are and have now than depicted in the novel.

Andrew Palfreyman January 2, 2014 at 18:43

All the tech is there to allow us to bundle tourists to the moon for a day trip with a moon picnic under a hab bubble as the high point. Solar beamers both ends, quick as a flash. A moon base naturally arises from something like that.

Etienne January 5, 2014 at 12:55

Bonjour Paul, meilleurs vœux pour cette nouvelle année et que tous les dieux du cosmos vous prêtent longue vie ! Thank you for this exciting Centauri Dreams website! Cordialement. Etienne

Paul Gilster January 6, 2014 at 10:04

Merci, Etienne. Et une très bonne année à vous aussi!

norman wells January 29, 2014 at 18:40

Until you have been involved in a major ‘State of the Art’ prototype/production program you will have no idea of how long it takes ! no matter how carefully the requirement is prepared ,where there are a number of new technologies and uncertainties involved it will always be a case of ‘best endeavours ‘and the delays and revisions will increase. estimates are always over-optimistic and despite tight control overruns will be almost inevitable I know !I’ve been there

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