In recent months, NASA has been testing an entirely new communications system using the Psyche spacecraft. The probe's main mission is to visit the asteroid of the same name (16 Psyche), but it has already sent laser messages to Earth on its way there.
NASA is testing a system called Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC), which uses near-infrared lasers to send messages back to Earth. In November, during the first test, the laser signal was detected from a distance of 16 million kilometers by the Hale Telescope, which was the largest telescope on Earth in decades, according to reports. IFLScience. Among the messages was a video of a cat.
The advantage of DSOC over radio waves is greater bandwidth, so we can receive more data faster. But there are also difficulties, such as proper coordination of systems and the acquisition of new facilities for receiving messages. Therefore, researchers believe that a combination of radio and laser may be the best solution, and new tests show that radio antennas can be modified for both.
The new test sent data from twice the distance, 32 million kilometres. On January 1, the Psyche team photo was downloaded at 15.63 Mbps. This is equivalent to forty times the speed available on radio frequencies.
“Shortly after the demonstration, our hybrid antenna was able to successfully and reliably measure and track DSOC's downlink transmission,” Amy Smith, deputy director of NASA's Deep Space Network at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement. “It also received Psyche's radio frequency signal, so we demonstrated for the first time simultaneous radio and optical frequency communication in deep space.”
The small device, consisting of seven hexagonal mirrors, was retrofitted to fit the radio antenna on Deep Space Station 13. A high-resolution camera was attached to the subreflector of the antenna in the center of the dish carrying Psyche's data.
“This is a heavy-duty optical system built on a 34-meter flexible structure,” explained Barzeya Tehrani, Vice President of Terrestrial Communications Systems. “We use a system of mirrors, tiny sensors and cameras to align and direct the laser from deep space to the shaft that reaches the detector.”
The concept will be tested again and again. They hope to be able to track it even in June, when it is 2.5 times farther from the Sun than Earth. Mars is also very far away from us, and if the system succeeds, it will mean a lot of data about the Red Planet.