Starting in 2019, NASA will begin using laser communications technology to "enable greater return of science data from space."\u00a0\nThe reason is laser is more bandwidth-friendly than classic radio for data delivery, plus it's more secure, NASA says in a newly released explainer of its plans.\nLaser signals from space will be much harder to hack than old-school radio because the signal is more concentrated, the agency says on its website. Plus, the higher frequencies provide more bandwidth \u2014 important for space data crunching. And laser equipment is lighter, allowing for longer missions, among other benefits.\n\n\u201cLaser beams, which are forms of light waves, expand at a much lower rate than the radio frequency waves that traditionally transport space data,\u201d NASA\u2019s Exploration and Space Communications arm says. \u201cThey, therefore, cover less surface area\u201d and are thus harder to intercept.\nNASA has started testing satellite payload for its project. The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will pump data back to Earth at 10 to 100 times faster rates than existing radio, it says. That\u2019s a nine-week data-send time from Mars rather than the current radio-based nine years \u2014 its estimate for a Google-style map of the entire planet surface.\nThe challenges of laser communications\nLaser is not as easy as radio, though, NASA explains. That\u2019s partly because the Earth\u2019s rotation, coupled with the amount of time it takes data to reach the ground station from the spacecraft \u2014 albeit faster than radio \u2014 means tricky timing calculations are needed to determine where the narrower laser needs to hit. Traditional radio simply needs a data dump, from space, in the vicinity of the ground receiver, whereas laser needs to be continually connected during the transmission.\nThe agency intends to employ a special locking, pointing mechanism. The idea is that a pre-scheduled passing craft\u2019s telescope picks up a finder-signal sent from the ground station. That allows the transmitter to lock on. Mirrors in the spacecraft\u2019s laser modulator are driven by sensors, and they send the beam.\nUsing the LCRD, NASA is aiming for a 1.24 Gigabits per second, geosynchronous-to-ground optical link with two ground stations. The first flight, run by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is expected to take place next year. The LCRD's 2019 experiment \u201cwill beam laser signals almost 25,000 miles from a ground station in California to a satellite in geostationary orbit, then relay that signal to another ground station,\u201d NASA said on its website.\nOther applications for laser-based data transmission\nOther organizations, such as Google-owner Alphabet\u2019s subsidiary X, have expressed interest in using laser-based carriers but terrestrially. X, for example, is setting up as an ISP that \u2014 instead of using wireless and cables \u2014\u00a0places Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC) laser-containing boxes within line of sight every few miles.\nNASA's work has been wide-reaching and includes network development. One thrust has been in how to send the data over the difficult distances using low overheads and with no loss. I\u2019ve written about the Disruption or Delay Tolerant Networking that\u2019s being used, recently. The protocol is supposed to guarantee delivery when traffic gets kiboshed. Clouds can be an issue, for example. That networking idea could have uses in land-based internet, too \u2014 it works by storing data at nodes rather than at the originating transmitter.\n\u201cTesting laser communications in geostationary orbit, as LCRD will do, has practical applications for data transfer on Earth,\u201d NASA says. In fact, X says its FSOC land ISP project is in part inspired by balloon-to-balloon internet FSOC tests in the stratosphere.