Speaking to spacecraft utilizing radio and laser communications

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By Calvin S. Nelson

When NASA’s Psyche mission launched in October of final yr, it had a particular passenger on board: a check of a brand new communications system utilizing lasers, named Deep Area Optical Communications (DSOC). That system despatched again its first knowledge in November, and now it has hit one other milestone, with alerts from the experiment being acquired by a hybrid antenna on Earth.

The overwhelming majority of deep area missions talk utilizing radio frequencies, which is a tried and examined expertise that has been in use for many years. Nonetheless, there are bandwidth limitations to radio communications, and as missions gather ever bigger quantities of knowledge, a brand new communications expertise is required to ship them. That’s the place laser or optical communications are available in, as this will enhance the obtainable bandwidth by 10 and even 100 occasions over radio.

Now that Goldstone’s experimental hybrid antenna has proved that each radio and laser alerts could be acquired synchronously by the identical antenna, purpose-built hybrid antennas (just like the one depicted right here in an artist’s idea) might in the future change into a actuality. NASA/JPL-Caltech

DSOC is testing whether or not sending alerts from deep area crafts utilizing laser communications is possible. However the different half of the equation is receiving these alerts on Earth. NASA’s Deep Area Community (DSN), which receives alerts from these deep area missions, is now experimenting with a hybrid design antenna that may obtain each radio and laser alerts.

This experimental hybrid antenna has been in a position to obtain each laser alerts from DSOC and radio alerts from Psyche for the primary time. “Our hybrid antenna has been in a position to efficiently and reliably lock onto and observe the DSOC downlink since shortly after the tech demo launched,” mentioned Amy Smith, DSN deputy supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a assertion. “It additionally acquired Psyche’s radio frequency sign, so we’ve demonstrated synchronous radio and optical frequency deep area communications for the primary time.”

The hybrid antenna was constructed by retrofitting current radio antenna {hardware} and including a bunch of segmented mirrors to the very middle of the dish. This enables the laser alerts to be redirected to a digicam positioned on the lengthy arms that reach from the dish’s construction.

“We use a system of mirrors, exact sensors, and cameras to actively align and direct laser from deep area right into a fiber reaching the detector,” defined Barzia Tehrani, communications floor programs deputy supervisor and supply supervisor for the hybrid antenna at JPL.

The goal is to improve extra dishes within the DSN community to make use of each laser and radio communications, and even to assemble new purpose-built hybrid antennae sooner or later. “We will have one asset doing two issues on the similar time; changing our communication roads into highways and saving time, cash, and sources,” mentioned Tehrani.

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