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NASA's 'OPALS' to beam data from space via laser

11 July 2013

NASA will use the International Space Station to test a new communications technology that could dramatically improve spacecraft communications.

OPALS will be mounted externally on the International Space Station in a nadir position on an ExPrESS Logistics Carrier (graphic courtesy of NASA)

The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS), an optical technology demonstration experiment, could improve NASA's data rates for communications with future spacecraft by a factor of 10 to 100.

OPALS has now been shipped to NASA's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida from the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. It is scheduled to launch to the space station later this year aboard a SpaceX Dragon commercial resupply capsule on the company's Falcon 9 rocket.

"OPALS represents a tangible stepping stone for laser communications, and the International Space Station is a great platform for an experiment like this," said Michael Kokorowski, OPALS project manager at JPL.

"Future operational laser communication systems will have the ability to transmit more data from spacecraft down to the ground than they currently do, mitigating a significant bottleneck for scientific investigations and commercial ventures."

OPALS will be mounted on the outside of the International Space Station and communicate with a ground station in Wrightwood, California, a mountain town near Los Angeles.

"It's like aiming a laser pointer continuously for two minutes at a dot the diameter of a human hair from 30 feet away while you're walking," explained OPALS systems engineer Bogdan Oaida of JPL.

Diagrammatic illustration of OPAL aboard the ISS. (graphic courtesy of NASA)

The OPALS instrument was built at JPL and is scheduled to fly on the Dragon capsule in late 2013. The mission is expected to run 90 days after installation on the station.

The flight system is composed of three main elements (see opposite illustration): 

- Sealed Container: houses all of the commercial-of-the-shelf avionics boards, the laser, and custom power board pressured at one atmosphere with air. Connected to optical gimbal transceiver via cable feedthroughs.

- Optical gimbal transceiver: an optical head containing an uplink camera and laser collimator for the downlink, sits on a two-axis gimbal.

- Flight Releasable Attachment Mechanism (FRAM): both the sealed container and Optical gimbal transceiver sit on the FRAM, which provides a standard mechanical and electrical interface to both the ISS and the launch vehicle.

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