With the launch of NASA's lunar mission tonight, the space agency is taking a big step in an effort to create an outer space Internet.
"This is akin to the fact that you have a fiber-optic connection into your house and you get faster downloads. We want to get faster downloads in space," said Don Boroson, principal investigator for NASA's lunar mission and a Laboratory Fellow at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. "We're told by scientists that they have cameras to send to Mars, but they're stuck because radio systems are not capable of sending much of the data and images collected there back to Earth. With higher download speeds they could send all of their data back. They could do much more with more downloads."
At 11:27 p.m. ET, NASA is scheduled to launch its Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) observatory from the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.
NASA will provide live coverage and commentary on the LADEE launch beginning at 9:30 p.m. ET tonight on NASA TV.
The robotic space probe's main mission is to study the moon's atmosphere.
However, it also has another mission.
About a month after launch, the spacecraft will begin a limited test of a high-data-rate laser communication system. If that system works as planned, similar systems are expected to be used to speed up future satellite communications, as well as deep space communications with robots and human exploration crews.
Don Cornwell, Lunar Laser Communications Mission Manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told Computerworld that this will be the space agency's first laser communications test.
In 2017, NASA is expected to launch a Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, which is expected to run tests for two to five years.
Using a laser for communications, instead of radio systems, would enable robots -- similar to the Mars rover Curiosity -- as well as astronauts to send and receive far greater data loads, whether they're in orbit around Earth, on the moon or a distant asteroid.
The two-way laser communications system can deliver six times more data with 25% less power than what can be done with the best radio systems, according to Cornwell.
He also said that laser communications would use devices that weigh half of what radio devices on rockets, rovers and spacecraft weigh today. When scientists are sending spacecraft into space, weight is a critical factor.
"When you send satellite communicationss up in space, every pound really counts," said Boroson. "You could send a mission very far away but the size of the radio [on the rocket] grows and grows. This is a fraction of the weight... Every ounce counts. The fact that we could be smaller and deliver a much higher deliver rate is very important."
And space exploration is largely about the data. Rovers and astronauts are expected to take measurements, shoot images and video of distant planets and asteroids. However, if they can't get that data back to scientists on Earth, it's scientifically limiting the entire mission.
"Right now, there's often a bottleneck with the radio system," said Cornwell. "Scientists have to pick and choose which images and data they want because it's not optimal to send it all back. With laser systems, they shouldn't have to choose. And as NASA goes further and further out in space, we'd like to... send more of that data back."
He added that the large pipe that laser communications give them will become increasingly important as explorations travel farther from Earth.
Cornwell said that some commercial operations are looking into testing laser communications in an effort to create an Earth-orbiting network of satellites that would speed data transmissions using lasers.
"We're really in the formulation phase," he said.
This article, NASA's lunar mission could lead to Internet in space, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is email@example.com.
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This story, "NASA's lunar mission could lead to Internet in space" was originally published by Computerworld.