NASA Team Sets New Space-to-Ground Laser Communication Record

TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD)

[NASA] and a team of partners has demonstrated a space-to-ground laser communication system operating at a record breaking 200 gigabit per second (Gbps) data rate. The TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) satellite payload was designed and built by [MIT Lincoln Laboratory]. The record of the highest data rate ever achieved by a space-to-Earth optical communication link surpasses the 100 Gbps record set by the same team in June 2022.

TBIRD makes passes over an ground station having a duration of about six-minutes. During that period, multiple terabytes of data can be downlinked. Each terabyte contains the equivalent of about 500 hours of high-definition video. The TBIRD communication system transmits information using modulated laser light waves. Traditionally, radio waves have been the medium of choice for space communications. Radio waves transmit data through space using similar circuits and systems to those employed by terrestrial radio systems such as WiFi, broadcast radio, and cellular telephony. Optical communication systems can generally achieve higher data rates, lower loses, and operate with higher efficiency than radio frequency systems.

TBIRD is a 3U sized satellite payload, meaning it is approximately the size of box of tissues. The TBIRD payload is carried aboard NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) satellite. PTD-3 is a CubeSat measuring about the size of two cereal boxes stacked together. The satellite is synchronized to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun such that it passes over the same ground station at the same times, twice each day.

Achieving the record breaking TBIRD data transmissions truly takes a village. The TBIRD space payload was designed and built by [MIT Lincoln Laboratory]. The payload flies aboard the PTD-3 satellite built and operated by [Terran Orbital]. The PTD-3 satellite was carried into orbit by a [SpaceX] Transporter-5 rideshare mission launched from the [NASA Kennedy Space Center]. The TBIRD mission and concept was developed at the [NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] while the PTD-3 program and mission is managed by the [NASA Ames Research Center]. Finally, the ground station for the data link is part of the Optical Communications Test Laboratory at the [NASA Jet Propulsion Lab].

Of course, future space missions can embed the record breaking optical communication technology demonstrated by TBIRD. Downlinking massive amounts of data from space to Earth is imperative to evolving scientific missions. For example, we expect to enjoy live 4K ultra-high-definition video streaming from the Moon thanks to the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O).

13 thoughts on “NASA Team Sets New Space-to-Ground Laser Communication Record

  1. This is really cool. And surely it will enable lots of sweet science data to be sent back to earth from probes and such. But, will this work for deep space missions? Can we get 4k live streaming video from Jupiters moons? Also, technical details would have been nice. How can it align itself to the receiving station on earth? What kind of modulation is used. It surely can’t simply be amplitude modulated? Atmospheric disturbance would wreck that I think. Nasa’s website didn’t make much sense…

    1. Even if they get to the point of direct laser communication between us and Jupiter there is still the fact that time of flight for a photon to Jupiter is about 33 minutes.

      1. So, we get HD video delayed 33 minutes. If not used for remote telepresence control, which it won’t be because it can’t be, that’s just fine. When not sending video it will send high rate science data.

  2. Cool, but laser links were a thing since the 1970s.
    My father remembers how his ham radio fellows made experiments with all sorts of laser links and microwave links.
    Like high-bandwith video transmissions etc.
    These were real tube lasers back then, by the way, not cheap laser diodes that have to use resonance crystals and must be pulsed.
    I’m kind of depressed how backwards we are still, 50 years later. *sigh*

      1. I worked in an optical lab around 1986 using the first low-ish cost laser diodes from Sanyo. $800 each, and if you put in ANY excess current it died.

        I was responsible for the current limiting power supply. Fun times testing that; one day I popped 3 of them…

    1. You could say Sputnik was nothing new in 1957, since people had already been throwing stuff in the air for thousands of years. The point is more that 1970s (and 2010s) lasers weren’t sending and receiving 200Gbps while moving at 8km/s.

      But yeah, the article is weirdly written as if the idea of using a laser is the interesting part, which HaD readers probably knew about already.

    2. In the 90s I worked for a barcode scanner company on product software. we were phasing out the last HeNe tube lasers for the semiconductor lasers, which were cheaper, more reliable, and did not require a high voltage high current power supply, vaccuum and cooling fans. They were expensive, very sensitive to electrostaric discharge and required a super accurate current metering supply… basically if you sneezed on one you’d shorten it’s life by a factor of 20. No one today would want a cathode ray tube display in their mobile phone… solid state is a game changer. Scanners are almost all 1D and 2D imagers now and that’s even more convenient, no mirror motors.

  3. Gosh, how handy for sending imaging/sensor data to specific ground/airborne stations that can’t be picked up anywhere else, by anyone else, during the flyby….I’m sure it will find lots of use in “science”. Think of all the film buckets they won’t have to catch…

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.