Beam Me Up, Scotty

NASA attempts data transfer using laser beams.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
NASA attempts data transfer using laser beams.
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NASA is conducting an experiment called Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS), using laser beams to transmit large amounts of data from the International Space Station (ISS) to Earth and vice versa.

Today, communication over such long distances uses radio wave transmission. Beaming information with lasers is faster than using radio frequencies – we’re talking about going up to 50Mbps from the old 20Kbps – and this means that a significantly greater amount of information can be transferred in the same period of time. For example, the ISS successfully tested beaming a HD video to Earth in 3.5 seconds, instead of the 10 minutes it would have taken using radio waves.

The only caveat would be how precise the transfer needs to be – the satellite beaming the data needs to accurately point the laser to the receiving telescope on Earth. If the technology succeeds, communications between astronauts and Earth can be sped up, reducing delays and errors. Data from far-off satellites and surface probes can be sent back faster – a scan of Mars’ surface, for example, would reach us in nine weeks instead of nine years.