This afternoon, beneath a cloudy sky in Cape Canaveral, a rocket is scheduled to launch with some unusual cargo: a laser communications system for astronauts, the space equivalent of upgrading from dial-up to DSL. NASA's optical laser communications (known as opticom) technology could make it much easier for the International Space Station to share data with Mission Control—and it could change the way our own earthly Internet works as well.
Elon Musk's SpaceX is taking the opticom package into space as part of the company's third Commercial Resupply mission to the space station. Once the tech is installed on the ISS, they're going to try something to warm every geek's heart: transmitting video from space to Earth at more than 200 times the speed they're currently able to. The system—officially called the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science, or OPALS, and developed at California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—sends data at up to 50 megabits per second, way better than NASA's current 200-400 kilobits per second.
“Our ability to generate data has greatly outpaced our ability to downlink it," Jet Propulsion Lab systems engineer Bogdan Oaida says in a statement. "Imagine trying to download a movie at home over dial-up. It's essentially the same problem in space, whether we're talking about low-Earth orbit or deep space. "
The OPALS system was developed entirely with off-the-shelf electronics by engineers that NASA tactfully refers to as “in the early stage of their careers.” Once installed, it receives laser beacons from a telescope located on Earth. OPALS uses the beacon to lock onto the telescope, and then the space station sends a laser beam containing an encoded video to Earth. That's quite different from the radio system that most NASA probes, such as the Mars rover, currently use to communicate with Earth. If the laser system works, it may mark a new phase in the future of space communication, and could inspire new forms of data transmission back on the home planet.
Alongside the OPALS laser system, SpaceX's Dragon ship is also shipping food, supplies, and a few other experiments to astronauts at the International Space Station. Among the experiments are new prehensile legs for Robonaut, a small robot NASA hopes to use to perform automated tasks in the space station, and Veggie, a test system designed to grow lettuce and other salad crops in space.
But as is always the case with space projects, all this is contingent upon a very Earth-bound problem: The weather doesn't look too good in Florida. The Dragon launch, scheduled for 3:25 p.m. Eastern, currently only has a 40% chance of favorable lift-off conditions. Both the private space travel company and the government agency are crossing their fingers today's flight will go off; a previous attempt to launch on Monday was scrubbed due to a helium leak.
If today's launch is canceled, SpaceX says, it will try again on Saturday.
[Images courtesy of NASA]