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NASA is sending an Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T) to the International Space Station to communicate with the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) (launched in December 2021), completing NASA’s first two-way, end-to-end laser relay system.

According to Innovation New Network, laser communications systems send and receive information at higher data rates using invisible infrared light, so missions can send more images and videos back to Earth in a single transmission. Once installed on the space station, ILLUMA-T will show the benefits of higher data rates for missions in low Earth orbit.

Badri Younes, former deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) office stated: “Laser communications offer missions more flexibility and an expedited way to get data back from space,” and added that they are integrating the technology on demonstrations near Earth, on the Moon, and in deep space.

Another benefit of laser systems is that they are lighter and use less power, which is a key benefit when designing spacecraft.

ILLUMA-T is roughly the size of a refrigerator and will be secured to an external module on the space station to conduct its demonstration with LCRD. Once ILLUMA-T is on the space station, the terminal will send high-resolution data, including pictures and videos, to LCRD at a rate of 1.2 gigabits per second. Then, the data will be sent from LCRD to ground stations in Hawaii and California.

Operational laser communications will replace radio frequency systems in the future, which is what most space-based missions use today to send data home.

Testing the ability of laser communications to produce higher data rates in many different scenarios in space will help the aerospace community further refine the capability for future missions to the Moon, Mars, and deep space.