For the first time, NASA has used a new type of laser transmitter to beam high-definition video down to Earth from the International Space Station.
Thursday's high-def "Hello World" message was sent via the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science, or OPALS, which was delivered to the station in April during a SpaceX resupply mission. The OPALS experiment is aimed at demonstrating laser communication systems that can dramatically outpace the radio-based method currently used for deep-space data transfer.
"It's like upgrading from dial-up to DSL," Bogdan Oaida, OPALS project systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained during a preview of the test.
Part of the challenge for OPALS was to lock onto its target at Table Mountain Observatory in Wrightwood, California. First, the observatory aimed a laser beacon at the space station, and that helped OPALS get a fix on the signal receiver as the station sped past at 17,500 mph.
The entire transmission lasted 148 seconds, and reached a maximum transmission rate of 50 megabits per second. NASA says OPALS transmitted each copy of its 175-megabit "Hello World" video message in just 3.5 seconds — a feat that would have taken more than 10 minutes using traditional data downlink methods.
The technique isn't such a big deal for data transfer between Earth and the space station, which is served by a constellation of telecom satellites in low-Earth orbit. But laser transmitters could revolutionize communication with interplanetary probes, which currently depend on relatively low-bandwidth radio links with NASA's Deep Space Network.
"Using the space station to investigate ways we can improve communication rates with spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit is another example of how the orbital complex serves as a stepping stone to human deep-space exploration," Sam Scimemi, director of the space station division at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release.
First published June 6 2014, 2:59 PM
Alan Boyle is the science editor for NBC News Digital. He joined MSNBC.com at its inception in July 1996, and took on the science role in July 1997 with the landing of NASA's Mars Pathfinder probe. Boyle is responsible for coverage of science and space for NBCNews.com.
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Boyle joined NBCNews.com from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where he was the foreign desk editor from 1987 to 1996. Boyle has won awards for science journalism from numerous organizations, including the National Academies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Science Writers. Boyle is the author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference." He lives in Bellevue, Wash.