Lunar Broadband Providers

This is a computer-aided design drawing of the optical module on the satellite showing the telescope and gimbal (pivoted support). Credit: NASA

This is a computer-aided design drawing of the optical module on the satellite showing the telescope and gimbal (pivoted support). Credit: NASA

Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently presented results from a unique experiment in broadband communication that they undertook with NASA last fall. The team demonstrated that a broadband connection with speeds similar to those we now enjoy on Earth could be provided to other locations in our solar system.

The team used lasers to break the previous transmission speed record for communications between the Earth and the Moon by a factor of 4,800. To accomplish this, they used an instrument called the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD), which was mounted on NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft.

LLCD represents the first dedicated communication system tested in space that uses lasers instead of radio waves. According to the research article, the system supports “622 Mbps over the approximately 400 thousand kilometer link.”

This photograph of the optical module of the LLCD space terminal shows the 4-inch telescope and its protective window. Credit: MIT

This photograph of the optical module of the LLCD space terminal shows the 4-inch telescope and its protective window. Credit: MIT

It’s easy to imagine how a broadband connection on the Moon could benefit future human explorers. Improved communication might make setting up a  lunar base for astronauts a bit more realistic, and it would allow them to transfer much larger amounts of data back to the Earth than is possible today.

But it’s not just humans that will benefit. The technology could provide a huge leap forward in communication speeds for future satellites and robotic missions.

Communicating Astrobiology

Supplying lunar missions with wireless broadband is a problem of physics and engineering, not astrobiology. However, such technology could enable more efficient communication for future astrobiology missions.

Today, people tend to think of broadband speeds in terms of how quickly they can stream videos without the picture breaking up. But rapid communication speeds between planetary locations could allow robotic missions to transmit much more scientific data than they do today. Imagine streaming video of the martian landscape from future Mars rovers as they cruise between boulders looking for locations where life may have once thrived.


LLCD Bolden Video to the Moon and Back. Credit: NASA.gov (YouTube)

Up Next

LLCD is just the first step toward a truly ‘connected’ communications strategy beyond Earth. The experiment confirmed that it is possible to communicate over vast distances (almost a quarter-of-a-million miles) using this technology. And that’s just our capabilities today.

In a press release from NASA, Don Cornwell, LLCD mission manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, commented, “Throughout our testing we did not see anything that would prevent the operational use of this technology in the immediate future.”

Next up for NASA is the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LRCD). This test will show how continuous laser relay communications can provide a connection of over one billion bits per second between two stations on Earth using a satellite in geosynchronous orbit.

A laser beam to the Moon from NASA’s Lunar Lasercom Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory (OCTL) Terminal. Credit: NASA

A laser beam to the Moon from NASA’s Lunar Lasercom Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory (OCTL) Terminal. Credit: NASA


The LADEE Mission

LADEE launched in September of 2013 and provided new data about how dust is lofted into the Moon’s thin atmosphere. The mission also proved that water ice exists in permanently shadowed areas found in craters at the lunar poles.

In April of 2014, LADEE intentionally crashed into the lunar surface. Scientists observed the impact and the resulting plume of debris that was created.

By studying the Moon with LADEE, astrobiologists were able to gain new insight into the behavior and evolution of rocky bodies in the Solar System. Much of what they learned can be used to better understand other bodies like large asteroids, Mercury, and the moons of outer planets.