NASA made history on December 18th by successfully broadcasting an ultra-high-definition video of an adorable tabby cat named Taters across more than 31 million kilometers of space – the farthest distance any data has ever been sent.
Lead-Up to the Demonstration
The video transmission was a key demonstration for NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications project (DSOC). DSOC aims to test the feasibility of using laser beams to transmit data over vast distances in space. Lasers can send information much faster than traditional radio waves – up to 100 times faster – meaning less lag time for faraway spacecraft to send back data or communicate with Earth.
The video featured Taters, a tabby cat belonging to a NASA employee. In the charming 8-second clip, Taters bats playfully at a toy on a string, his eyes following the red laser dot.
To send the video, scientists bounced a laser beam off a reflector on NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, currently traveling through space on its way to explore a metal-rich asteroid. The signal then returned to Earth, where it was received by telescopes at NASA’s Deep Space Network sites in California and Spain.
Successful Transmission Makes History
The video transmission succeeded with staggering speed compared to previous deep space communications. The laser beam carried data at a rate of 2.1 gigabits per second – over 200 times faster than standard radio frequency methods used today.
At that speed, it would take just 7 minutes to download a two-hour HD movie instead of more than 8 hours.
|2-Hour HD Movie Download Time
|Standard radio waves
|≤ 10 megabits per second
|Over 8 hours
|2.1 gigabits per second
This new communications capability could revolutionize future space exploration. Missions will be able to rapidly send back unprecedented volumes of scientific images and data from destinations across the solar system. Scientists also expect the technology to enable new types of missions focused on real-time control of robots and spacecraft.
What’s Next for Deep Space Laser Communications
While transmitting a cute cat video may seem trivial, it represents a giant leap forward for communications technology that could support NASA’s plans for future human and robotic missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
DSOC aims to demonstrate sustained laser communications by spring 2024. The plan involves using the lasers for “optical linking” – transmitting data between spacecraft as one travels farther into space. If successful, it would allow for a communications and data relay infrastructure that functions similar to the internet here on Earth.
Eventually, advances like error-correcting codes and adaptive optics could allow high-bandwidth connections over even longer distances. NASA hopes laser technology could one day enable near real-time communication with missions hundreds of millions of miles into the solar system.
What the Feat Means for Future Exploration
Successfully beaming high-definition footage millions of miles through the vacuum of space has exciting implications for deep space voyages of the future.
Faster communications will allow astronauts traveling to Mars to stay more closely connected with mission control back on Earth. Robotic explorers at the farthest reaches of the solar system will call home more often with fresh images and readings.
Like early internet vs dial-up connections, everything we currently do in space could speed up tremendously and change how missions operate. The success of the laser transmission brings us one step closer to seeing that future realized.
We may have seen the viral space cat video of today. But someday the rich datasets descending on Earth from the depths of the cosmos could fuel astonishing new discoveries that reshape our understanding of the universe and our place within it.
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