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NASA's Deep Space Optical Comm Demo Sends, Receives First Data
NASA's Psyche spacecraft is shown in a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 8, 2022. DSOC's gold-capped flight laser transceiver can be seen, near center, attached to the spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky.
NASA's Deep Space Optical Comm Demo Sends, Receives First Data
by Brad Bartz
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Nov 17, 2023

In a landmark achievement, NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment has successfully conducted its 'first light' test, sending and receiving data via laser from a distance unprecedented in the history of space exploration. This feat marks a significant step in transforming how spacecraft communicate across the vast expanse of space.

Positioned nearly 10 million miles away from Earth, approximately 40 times the lunar distance, DSOC has transmitted a near-infrared laser encoded with test data to the Hale Telescope at Caltech's Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California. This demonstration of optical communications is the farthest ever achieved, showcasing the potential for laser-based space communication.

The DSOC experiment, aboard the recently launched Psyche spacecraft, is poised to send high-bandwidth test data to Earth during its two-year technological demonstration. This period coincides with Psyche's journey towards the main asteroid belt, nestled between Mars and Jupiter. The management of both DSOC and the Psyche mission is under the expertise of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.

First Light and the Fusion of Cutting-Edge Technologies
Achieving 'first light' on November 14 was a critical milestone for DSOC. The experiment's flight laser transceiver, an advanced instrument aboard Psyche, successfully locked onto an uplink laser beacon transmitted from the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory at JPL's Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, California. This uplink beacon was instrumental in guiding the transceiver's downlink laser back to Palomar, situated 100 miles south of Table Mountain. Automated systems at both the transceiver and ground stations played a vital role in fine-tuning the pointing of the laser.

Trudy Kortes, director of Technology Demonstrations at NASA Headquarters, emphasized the significance of this accomplishment: "Achieving first light is one of many critical DSOC milestones in the coming months, paving the way toward higher-data-rate communications capable of sending scientific information, high-definition imagery, and streaming video in support of humanity's next giant leap: sending humans to Mars."

Closing the Link: A Key Objective
A crucial aspect of the DSOC experiment was the simultaneous sending of test data via both uplink and downlink lasers, a process known as 'closing the link.' This procedure is a primary objective for the experiment. Although the current technology demonstration does not involve transmitting Psyche mission data, it is closely coordinated with the Psyche mission-support team to ensure seamless integration of operations.

Meera Srinivasan, operations lead for DSOC at JPL, detailed the complexities and successes of the recent test: "Tuesday morning's test was the first to fully incorporate the ground assets and flight transceiver, requiring the DSOC and Psyche operations teams to work in tandem. It was a formidable challenge, but for a short time, we were able to transmit, receive, and decode some data."

Preparing for Future Exploration
The DSOC experiment aims to demonstrate data transmission rates up to 100 times greater than current state-of-the-art radio frequency systems used in space. This increased capacity is crucial for supporting future human and robotic exploration missions and enhancing the capabilities of high-resolution science instruments.

Dr. Jason Mitchell, director of the Advanced Communications and Navigation Technologies Division within NASA's Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program, highlighted the broader impact of this technology: "Optical communication is a boon for scientists and researchers who always want more from their space missions, and will enable human exploration of deep space. More data means more discoveries."

As the DSOC experiment progresses, its success in deep space optical communication promises to open new frontiers in space exploration and data transmission, heralding an era where vast amounts of data can be sent across millions of miles, illuminating the mysteries of the universe with unprecedented clarity.

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