NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) system, onboard the Psyche spacecraft, has successfully transmitted a laser message to Earth from a distance of over 10 million miles, approximately 40 times farther than the Moon's average distance from our planet.
DSOC employs cutting-edge near-infrared lasers, enabling the transmission of encoded messages at unprecedented speeds across vast cosmic distances. While laser communication has been used for missions in near-Earth orbit, this marks the first time it has been applied at such an extensive range. Typically, radio waves are utilized to communicate with missions beyond the Moon, but the introduction of laser technology could increase data transmission speeds by a factor of 10 to 100.
This revolutionary technology not only enhances the potential for scientific instruments with higher resolutions on future missions but also promises faster communication during deep space journeys, such as direct video streaming from the surface of Mars.
However, utilizing laser communication over vast distances presents its own set of challenges, including the need for precise alignment and the weakening of photon signals with increasing distance, resulting in potential communication delays.
During a recent test with the Psyche spacecraft, it took approximately 50 seconds for photons to reach Earth. As the mission progresses towards its final destination in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, DSOC will need to adapt to the changing positions of the spacecraft and the planet. Whether this adaptation can be successfully achieved will become clearer closer to the mission's conclusion in 2029, following further testing.