NASA’s Artemis II mission has brought the laser communications system to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The system will be integrated with the Orion spacecraft, which will transport astronauts around the Moon for the first time since the Apollo missions.
In November 2022, NASA launched Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight that took the Orion spacecraft even farther into space. Artemis II, the next mission, will test all the systems required for crewed spaceflight and lay the groundwork for future lunar surface missions. It will also evaluate new technologies, including enhanced laser communication capabilities.
The laser communications terminal on the Orion spacecraft is known as the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O). O2O offers faster data transmission rates compared to traditional radio wave systems used in most NASA missions. It enables the transmission and reception of more information in a single transmission, leading to valuable scientific discoveries.
O2O can transmit 4K high-definition video from the Moon at a speed of 260 megabits per second. It also facilitates the transmission and reception of procedures, pictures, flight plans, and serves as a link between Orion and mission control on Earth.
Once data is gathered, O2O will transmit the information via laser signals to ground stations in Las Cruces, New Mexico, or Table Mountain, California. These stations were selected due to their minimal cloud coverage, which affects the quality of images and videos sent from Orion through O2O.
The O2O laser terminal is part of the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program’s optical infusion effort. It aims to demonstrate laser communications in various missions. A team of engineers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory (MIT-LL) developed O2O. This successful partnership has contributed to previous laser communication missions, such as the 2013 Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD), the 2021 Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), and the 2022 TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) payload. SCaN showcases the benefits of laser communications by demonstrating this technology in different space scenarios.
Before delivering the O2O laser terminal to the Kennedy Space Center, it underwent rigorous environmental testing to ensure its functionality in the harsh conditions of space.
Laser communication terminals like O2O enable the transmission of more data to Earth, supporting advanced scientific investigations. The data collected during the Artemis II mission will provide valuable insights for NASA’s future lunar missions and contribute to establishing a long-term presence on the Moon and, eventually, Mars.
Image Source: NASA / Isacc Watson