NASA made history this week by beaming an ultra high definition video featuring an orange tabby cat from a spacecraft over 31 million kilometers away. The video transmission, which involved streaming 8K footage of a cat named Taters back to Earth across deep space, represented a breakthrough demonstration for laser communication technology.
High-Speed Space “Internet” Achieved
On December 18, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) streamed the cute cat video from the Psyche spacecraft using its Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology (CBS News). Psyche, which launched in August 2022, is currently traveling towards an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to study a metal-rich asteroid also named Psyche.
The video transmission occurred over a distance of 31 million kilometers and involved hitting a ground receiver only 10 inches wide with the laser beam. According to Caltech’s Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory (OCTL), the feat achieved a data download rate of close to 300 megabits per second – similar to a high-end home internet connection.
“This demonstration confirms that this new technology is ready for space missions,” said JPL’s Dave Israel, principal investigator of the Psyche mission, calling it a “radical transition” in communication capability.
Why A Cat Video?
You may be wondering why NASA chose to transmit a video of a random cat across the solar system. As it turns out, the footage of a tabby cat named Taters gazing out a window while a cuckoo clock chimes was specifically selected to demonstrate the capabilities of the technology.
The plain backdrop shows off the high resolution and color quality achievable, while Taters’ slow movements and the clock pendulum swinging tests the video compression algorithms under changing imagery. Even the purring and chiming sounds check the laser communication system’s audio transmission performance.
“Taters caught everyone’s eyes and immersed viewers in this demonstration,” explained JPL’s Abi Biswas, pointing out the public excitement and press coverage surrounding cat videos and space. “We hope that this interest will also translate to knowledge about optical communications technologies.”
Why Laser Communication is a Game Changer
Currently, most spacecraft rely on traditional radio frequency communications to phone home. But the data rate achievable through radio is limited, meaning it can take months to receive high resolution imagery and scientific data sent from distant parts of the solar system.
Lasers can transmit vastly more data in the same timeframe. For example, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned over 300 terabits of science data using radio frequency over 15 years. The same quantity of data could be sent in just days using Psyche’s laser communication technology.
|Kilobits per second
|Hundreds of megabits per second
|Just 10 inches
|High noise levels
|Higher signal integrity
This promises to revolutionize future robotic and human space exploration. Quickly receiving high definition panoramas, videos, health sensor readings, excavation plans, software updates, astronaut messages, and enormous datasets will enable more responsive real-time commanding of vehicles and increase science returns.
“This technology could one day enable live video streaming from astronauts on the surface of Mars or complex rover operations with semi-autonomous robotic explorers,” said Mike Downs of NASA Headquarters.
What’s Next for Laser Communication
While the Psyche mission’s technology demonstration focused on the downlink direction of providing connectivity from space to Earth, future systems will enable two-way communication. This will open up possibilities like astronauts controlling robots in real-time across interplanetary distances.
To advance operational readiness, NASA has been testing precursor laser communication systems closer to home. The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), developed jointly with the U.S. Space Force, has achieved bidirectional laser links between ground stations and NASA’s ISS.
LCRD will wrap up experiments in late 2025, after which NASA aims to transition laser communication technology into service for both near Earth and deep space mission infusion by the late 2020s to early 2030s. This will provide key communication infrastructure for space exploration plans at the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
“Psyche’s successful demonstration shows that this exciting new communications technology is ready for prime time,” concluded NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “It’s a historic milestone that has us cat-apulting closer towards enabling video streaming from Mars and transforming human and robotic space exploration.”
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.