The Future of Interstellar Communication Goes "Pew, Pew, Pew"

It's no subspace transceiver but this prototype communicator bound for the ISS could revolutionize how we share data over the vast expanses of solar space. It will deliver Gigabit speeds through deep space.

As the quality and quantity of onboard sensors improve on NASA's interplanetary probes and orbital telescopes continue to increase, so too does both the amount of data they generate and the amount of bandwidth needed to transmit that back in a timely fashion. You wouldn't try to push an HD video feed through a 56k baud modem any more than you'd try to suck a golf ball through a garden hose or pass a 100-couric behemoth but that's roughly what NASA's current transmission standards can handle.

"Right now, many of our deep space missions communicate at 200 to 400 kilobits per second." said Mission Manager Matt Abrahamson in a press release. "Optical communications has the potential to be a game-changer."

OPALS, Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science, is a prototype laser-based communications system ("lasercomm") technology demonstrator awaiting launch to the International Space Station. It's current iteration is limited to 50Mb/s aboard the ISS, but it is setting the groundwork for future deep space lasercomms capable of potentially delivering 1 Gb/s transmissions from Mars and beyond.

"It's like upgrading from dial-up to DSL," the project's systems engineer Bogdan Oaida said in a press release. "Our ability to generate data has greatly outpaced our ability to downlink it. Imagine trying to download a movie at home over dial-up. It's essentially the same problem in space, whether we're talking about low-Earth orbit or deep space."

The OPALS system was designed and built by JPL engineers using, largely, off-the-shelf parts. "We were not as constrained by mass, volume or power on this mission as we were by cost," said Abrahamson. And since the system relies on a frequency band outside of the RF spectrum, it is unregulated by the FCC which means it won't interfere with existing transmission technologies.

The system was supposed to launch on Monday as part of the SpaceX-3 resupply mission aboard a Falcon 9. However a helium leak in the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket scrubbed that attempt. Now, Friday's launch window is only around 40 percent given the prevailing weather. Either way, once OPALS is installed it will begin a 90 day testing phase (though it's service may be extended if everything works out well). [NASA - JPL - Slashgear]