Wide angle picture of the newly delivered O2O Laser Communications System delivered at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Three technicians are working behind the module.

NASA to test a new Laser Communications System on Artemis II

NASA's innovative laser communication system, dubbed O2O, will be tested during the Artemis II Orion Module’s future journey around the Moon

NASA announced on June 13, 2023, that their new Laser Communications System had been delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This innovative system, dubbed O2O, will be integrated with the Orion Module of Artemis II and tested along the capsule’s future journey around the Moon.

The O2O laser communications device lies on a table in NASA's Kennedy Space Center. It is being redied by two technicians, to be installed on the Orion module of Artemis II Moon mission
The O2O Laser module being readied for integration with Orion at NASA’s KSC.
Credits: NASA/Isaac Watson

The Artemis I mission was mainly utilized to test and verify the correct functioning of the various systems of SLS and Orion in a spaceflight environment. Artemis II, the first crewed mission to the Moon in over half a century, will mainly be focusing on testing oxygen tanks, crew displays, life support systems, and other components that were not present in Artemis I’s Orion spacecraft. Orion will also continue to act as a testbed for new technologies and experiments, including O2O.


Why lasers?

The Optical Communications System, which underwent testing in recent months, is assessing the capabilities to transmit data over great distances while maintaining high data transmission rates. This could, for example, enable NASA to receive high-quality 4K footage, along with important mission data, from orbit around the Moon.

The limitations in transmissions, when talking about space, usually boil down to constraints in the receiving equipment. Currently, radio waves are used to beam data from a spacecraft back to Earth. Using this kind of wave is more reliable as it is not blocked as easily by the atmosphere compared to other wavelengths.

However radio waves, having wavelengths of one to hundreds of meters,  have a reduced capacity of encoding large quantities of information onto a radio signal. While in the ‘70s, the data coming from the Apollo spacecraft was not that abundant, the requirements for Orion have multiplied exponentially. Another drawback of radio communication is the width of the transmission beam. A signal returning from the moon has a beam as spread out as an entire Earth hemisphere, and therefore needs an extensive (and expensive) network to be picked up.

A picture collage with images of NASA Laser communications devices and receivers, illustrating the benefits of Laser Data transfer over traditional Radio Waves
The benefits of Laser Data Transfer over traditional Radio Waves. Credits: NASA

NASA’s Laser systems in detail

The lasers being used by NASA in O2O and its predecessors employ infrared radiations on the order of a hundredth to a thousandth of a millimeter. Data rates are predicted to reach 260 megabits per second and will be received by specialized facilities, located in White Sands, New Mexico, and the JPL Table Mountain Observatory in Southern California. Both are located in areas with scarce cloud coverage, the most limiting factor for infrared transmissions.

The system is lighter, smaller and costs less than an equivalent radio system. It is comprised of three main systems: a 10 cm wide telescope that can gimbal to point and focus the laser to Earth, a specialized modem to encode and decipher data in laser pulses, and an extensive controller electronics system that can easily interface with Orion’s computer systems and flight avionics.


Other laser missions

O2O is the latest iteration in a program that started with the successful Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration mission in 2013, and continued with different missions.

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, launched in 2021, can send but also receive encoded laser data. Its ultimate goal is to receive a laser signal from the ISS (through the ILLUMA-T system, currently being tested at NASA Goddard) and beam it back to Earth.

An ULA Atlas V lifts off at night transporting the STPSat-6 with LCRD on board.
An ULA Atlas V lifts off at night transporting the STPSat-6 with LCRD on board. Credits: NASA

The TeraByte InfraRed Delivery mission, launched in 2022, achieved an impressive 200 Gigabit per second data rate from Low Earth Orbit to the surface just last April. 

The vast program aims to validate the benefits of laser communication over traditional radio waves, for various applications.


In the future

Along O2O and the LCRD, NASA Psyche is also equipped with the Deep Space Optical Communications system, which will help alleviate the bandwidth limits currently plaguing distant missions, and test this new technology in the harsh environment of deep space.

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft undergoes processing and servicing ahead of launch atop a work stand inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 3, 2022.
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft undergoes processing and servicing at NASA’s KSC. The DSOC module “tube” is visible on the bottom. Credits: NASA/Isaac Watson

With developments in laser transmission, NASA aims to use this new technology to enhance the capabilities of its network, in view of future prolonged missions to the Moon and even to Mars.

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Marco Guardabasso

Marco Guardabasso

Engineering student with a passion for space, photography and arranging music.

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