For years now, fiber optics has been synonymous with super-speed communications and data transfer, but now NASA is working to develop the next generation of high-speed modems using an emerging technology called integrated photonics. The agency's first integrated photonics modem is set to be deployed aboard the International Space Station in 2020. The palm-sized device makes use of optics-based functions like lasers, switches and wires that are all integrated on a microchip much like those in our cell phones.
"Integrated photonics are like an integrated circuit, except they use light rather than electrons to perform a wide variety of optical functions," said Don Cornwell, director of NASA's Advanced Communication and Navigation Division. "This technology will enable all types of NASA missions, not just optical communications."
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Cornwell says that NASA has relied on radio frequency (RF)-based communications since its inception, but today's missions demand higher data rates. Similar laser transmissions were tested from one of NASA's lunar orbiters a few years ago. The agency hopes the new laser-based system will lead to data encoding and transmission rates 10 to 100 times faster than the current status quo, while also requiring less mass and power. If successful, the new infrastructure could give us video and high-resolution data from spacecraft orbiting planets across the solar system.
NASA calls the system the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, or LCRD. It comprises a hosted payload that could be in orbit and connected to two ground stations. The whole thing is expected to become operational and available for use after a two-year demonstration period.
One of the goals of the project is to push the technology not just into space, but into use here on Earth as well.
"What we want to do is provide a faster exchange of data to the scientific community. Modems have to be inexpensive. They have to be small. We also have to keep their weight down," said Mike Krainak, who is leading the modem's development at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
That could lead not just to more robust inter-planetary communications, but other technological advances, like smaller, more efficient data centers.
"Google, Facebook, they're all starting to look at this technology," Krainak said. "As integrated photonics progresses to be more cost effective than fiber optics, it will be used ... Everything is headed this way."