January 30, 2016

NASA Engineers Tapped to Build First Integrated-Photonics Modem

A new-fangled modem that will employ an emerging technology called integrated
photonics will be tested as part of NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration mission.
Credits: NASA

(January 30, 2016)  A NASA team has been tapped to build a new type of communications modem that will employ an emerging, potentially revolutionary technology that could transform everything from telecommunications, medical imaging, advanced manufacturing to national defense.

The space agency’s first-ever integrated-photonics modem will be tested aboard the International Space Station beginning in 2020 as part of NASA’s multi-year Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, or LCRD. The cell phone-sized device incorporates optics-based functions, such as lasers, switches, and wires, onto a microchip — much like an integrated circuit found in all electronics hardware.

Once aboard the space station, the so-called Integrated LCRD LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) User Modem and Amplifier (ILLUMA) will serve as a low-Earth orbit terminal for NASA’s LCRD, demonstrating yet another capability for high-speed, laser-based communications.
Data Rates Demand New Technology

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has relied exclusively on radio frequency (RF)-based communications. Today, with missions demanding higher data rates than ever before, the need for LCRD has become more critical, said Don Cornwell, director of NASA’s Advanced Communication and Navigation Division within the space Communications and Navigation Program, which is funding the modem’s development.

LCRD promises to transform the way NASA sends and receives data, video and other information. It will use lasers to encode and transmit data at rates 10 to 100 times faster than today’s communications equipment, requiring significantly less mass and power. Such a leap in technology could deliver video and high-resolution measurements from spacecraft over planets across the solar system — permitting researchers to make detailed studies of conditions on other worlds, much as scientists today track hurricanes and other climate and environmental changes here on Earth.

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