back to article NASA to trial laser-powered space broadband

Impatient boffins will be able to download high resolution images and video from space probes in mere minutes if a newly approved NASA trial proves successful. The space agency has rubber-stamped a trial of one of its projects - a laser-based communications system - which is theoretically capable of shifting up to 100Mb/s from …


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  1. Peter Clarke 1

    May I Be (One of?) The First ...

    I've just picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It's going to go 100% failure in 72 hours.

    Only taken nearly 40 years for reality to catch up with fiction

    1. Mephistro
      Thumb Up


      Thanks for the '2001' reference.

      "Only taken nearly 40 years for reality to catch up with fiction"

      Optical comms are the easy part. The difficult part is having a computer forecasting the time of failure for a complex piece of technology. I think that 'true AI' -whatever that is- will come first.

      On a side note: I' remember reading in 'The lost worlds of 2001' a complete description of an alien device that can only be described as a smartphone. Mr. A.C. Clarke was a genius.

      1. rurwin
        Thumb Up

        Not only, but also

        "I' remember reading in 'The lost worlds of 2001' a complete description of an alien device that can only be described as a smartphone."

        And in "The Lion of Comarre" there is an iPod.

        "Mr. A.C. Clarke was a genius."

        He was indeed.

    2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge


      AE35 controlled a radio dish. Not a comm laser.

      Comm laser were in Larry Niven's writing, IIRC.

  2. Simon Neill

    I have to ask.

    Why we can get better broadband from Mars than we can to my house?

    I do hope this works though. Fit the next rovers with a HD video camera, stream video of mars.

    1. The Mole

      Because you are too tight to pay for it?

      If you want to spend a couple of million to get it I'm sure you could be provided with incredibly good broadband no matter where you live. In fact you probably don't even need to pay that much, just more than £5/month or whatever the current price you are paying is...

      1. Paul RND*1000

        @The Mole

        Just because you have higher speed options available for not too much more than 5 quid a month doesn't mean everyone else here does. Chances are OP would happily pay a reasonable amount for faster, reliable broadband IF IT WAS AVAILABLE. Chances are very good indeed that their broadband provider just flat out sucks and is incapable of providing a decent service at any price.

        Oh sure, if you have endless supplies of cash you can get pretty much anything done. Otherwise you're stuck with what commercial providers offer, which sometimes isn't very good at all, sometimes isn't *anything* at all.

  3. James Cooke

    Fast BB

    looks like they'll be getting faster BB on the space station than I will an hour outside of London in a major city

  4. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Call me waldo

    Forget communicating with interplanetary craft. This sort of bandwidth sounds ideal for multiple remote controlled robots in orbit. What you'd need to make that practical is a set of "eyes" on the robot(s) (preferably stereoscopic vision) and a real-time video link back to the ground control centre. Plus of course the less data intensive uplink to tell the robot where to wave its arms.

    It's hard to see this being a go-er for much further than lunar operations, due to the latency involved, but it does sound like the first step in doing something constructive in space.

    1. Danny 14 Silver badge

      I can see it now

      "change to " <packet loss> " orbit" <data cap reached>

      no nononoononono I said higher orbit ohshitohshitohshit

      <cue indian call center asking you to reboot the router. again.>

  5. Steve Evans

    "up to 100Mb/s"

    Ho ho... We all know what that means in broadband circles don't we...

    Lucky to get 20Mb/s.

  6. Thomas 4
    IT Angle


    This should shut up people that a) whine about the lack of scientific benefits from space exploration and b) whine about the lack of an IT angle in said articles.

  7. Captain TickTock

    Does it...

    ... come with sharks?

  8. A. Lewis


    Does anyone else remember Sim City 2000? I'm thinking specifically of the satellite power stations, and the disaster that could occur if they failed and the beam of energy from space went astray, carving a fiery path through your city.

    Well that was what first sprang to my mind. Pic: obvious.

    1. Thomas 18

      Laz0rs vastly overrated

      Even building the largest most destructive laser they can the MoD has trouble burning through a car bonnet on a cloudy day and that's only through a couple of miles of atmosphere.

  9. Alister Silver badge

    need a NASER

    Neutrino... blah blah

  10. Zmodem

    they will need the first real world inertial dampers on the laser head to stop packet loss when hit by a flying stone and random debris of space

  11. JeffyPooh

    They could've just used a mirror

    With *very* carefully aiming.

  12. CaptSmeg

    One eyed astronomers

    I assume those smart folks at NASA have considered any impact shooting a laser at Hawaii might have on the science being done by all those telescopes there?

    I'm guessing that low intensity / narrow frequency means it isn't but then looking at all the fuss about laser guide stars, surely someone will have a beef.

  13. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    All 3 sound like proper cutting edge push-the-envelope tech that *might* change the game.

    So no doubt going to get a pittance while SLS continues.

    *Cautious* thumbs up for this. Although of course it is "up to 100mbs"

  14. K. Adams

    Faster, but probably not as robust...

    Since laser beams live (predominantly) within the IR, near-IR, optical, near-UV, and/or UV realms of the electromagnetic spectrum, they are much more likely to be subject to divergence or obstruction by changing atmospheric conditions.

    This would probably make deployment of laser-based ground stations in areas with frequent and variable humidity/cloud cover and changing particulate pollution levels impractical in most areas on Earth. Such installations would be best deployed in the rarefied atmospheric conditions of Cerro Pachón in Chile or Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

    I expect that any spacecraft that rely on laser-based broadband communications will probably still be equipped with radio transceivers as a fall-back option...

    1. Pooua

      Many space probes have redundant communication features. Galileo suffered a fatal and permanent malfunction of its primary, high gain communication antenna when the HGA failed to deploy as the probe was en route to Jupiter. For the duration of the Jupiter mission, NASA had to rely on the much slower low gain antenna, which reduced the data received by 30%.

      You make good points about atmospheric interference. I'm wondering how NASA intends to deal with that issue? They have several options, including using an orbiting satellite to conduct the optical communications, while communicating by radio with ground stations. The receiver/transmitter need not be physically large nor consume inordinate amounts of power.

  15. Graham Marsden
    Black Helicopters


    NASA are building space-based lasers to beam signals down to the planet...??

    Where's my tin-foil hat?!?!

    1. Zmodem

      no, they are going to fire a laser at deep space probes and transfer data back from them like cableless fibre

  16. Sly

    Babylon 5 comes to life?

    they used a rather large laser for secure comms (though, through a wormhole)

    /coat Mines the one with the PPG in the pocket.

  17. C. P. Cosgrove
    Thumb Up

    Less of the negative vibes . . .

    Unless I am completely wrong - which is, of course, always possible- the tricky and time consuming bit was always getting data back from Mars, Uranus or wherever to somewhere near Earth orbit. Bandwidth from near-Earth orbit to ground (a) hasn't been a problem for a long time ( ask Sky, NSA et al ), and (b) doesn't need a laser of astronomer - or indeed of any upward looking airline pilot - blinding proportions ( ask Sky, NSA et al ).

    There are a lot of satellites up there already with high bandwidth connections down to ground.

    Chris Cosgrove

  18. Nights_are_Long
    Thumb Up

    Sty, thanks for reminding me babylon 5 is on when I get home from work 8 am sci-fi gota love it.

  19. Pooua

    It's about time! I attended a lecture circa 1983 at the University of New Mexico discussing lasers and laser applications. The presenters said that a 5 W argon ion laser would be capable of communicating to Earth from the nearest stars. NASA successfully transmitted a laser beam that the Galileo space probe received from 6 million km distant in 1992, in its GOPEX experiment. So, progress has been slow.

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