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Artemis 2 Will Communicate Using Space Lasers

NASA's manned mission to fly around the moon will one day flood the internet with crystal clear footage of its surface from space lasers.

By Matt Hrodey
May 15, 2023 3:00 PMJul 19, 2023 1:51 PM
Artemis spacecraft
Illustration of NASA's O2O terminal sending high-resolution data from the Artemis 2 mission. (Credit: NASA)


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When NASA’s towering Space Launch System rocket launches in November 2024 (if all goes as planned), the Artemis 2 mission will carry four astronauts and a cutting edge communications device.

For more than a decade, the space agency has worked to develop a new method of communication based on infrared lasers, to replace its old, bulky radio systems, which transmit at a fraction of the rate. Once in space, the “O2O,” the Orion Artemis 2 Optical Communication System will be tested at several points during the mission to transmit videos, images, procedures, flight plans and voice communications between Orion and Earth.

Artemis 2 Space Lasers

Artemis 2 won’t land on the moon – the Orion spacecraft is capable of atmospheric reentry and splashdown on an Earthly ocean, but not touchdown on solid land. It’ll fly around the moon, reaching 40,000 miles away from it, while beaming gigabytes of moon footage back to the Earth. The O2O can transmit the equivalent of about 30 streaming HD movies at one time.

“The idea is to have high-definition video transmissions to and from the Moon over laser links,” says NASA Project Manager Steven Horowitz in a press release. “If you recall the images from the Apollo mission, they were grainy and difficult to see, but O2O will allow Artemis astronauts to send videos and images significantly more vivid and detailed.”

Read More: Meet the Four Astronauts Who Will Soon Take a Trip to the Moon

How Did NASA Develop Laser Communication?

Technology for human exploration in deep space requires it to hold up in extreme conditions, so engineers have spent many years perfecting it. The first major milestone came in 2013, when the soda-can-shaped Lunar Atmosphere Dust and Environment Explorer (LADEE) flew to the moon and transmitted back to Earth using lasers.

On Oct. 18, 2013, the small robotic craft connected by laser to a ground station at NASA’s White Sands Complex in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and sent a high-definition video streams to and from the moon.

Read More: The Biggest Space Missions to Look For in 2023

The Next Step for Space Communication

Now that laser communication had demonstrated its usefulness, NASA began to launch new laser infrastructure into Earth's orbit, to send and receive messages and study the new technology. Between 2014 and 2017, The International Space Station (ISS) hosted a system, OPALS (The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science) that laser-communicated with Earth, beginning with an HD stream that said, “Hello World!”

NASA also launched a handful of small laser satellites and an important relay capable of receiving messages and sending them down to the agency’s receiving stations. To avoid cloud cover, NASA has built the facilities (which resemble small observatories) in Hawaii, California, and New Mexico, where telescopes pinpoint the near-infrared light.

Read More: The Future of Satellites Lies in the Constellations

The Artemis 2 Communication System

The O2O contains a small, 4-inch telescope and a modem for processing data, components that have already undergone rigorous testing on a “shaker table” and in vacuum chambers. The modem turns raw computer data into light patterns, and vice versa – similar to how old dial-up computer modems work.

Crew members will use the high-speed link to receive instructions and transmit experimental results, and like astronauts on the ISS, they will have the capacity to broadcast images of themselves to the Earth-based internet.

The Future of Laser Communication

Don’t expect laser communication to overtake fiber optic networks anytime soon – to date, the former requires satellites to relay messages, or a clear line of light.

A similar system may be useful in quantum computing, which cannot use fiber optic cables over long distances. A new photon detector developed by researchers at JPL may provide the extreme sensitivity needed.

Read More: Neil deGrasse Tyson Responds to Artemis 2 Announcement

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