A new space-based laser communications technology will get a test run Sunday morning, when spaceflight developer Orbital ATK launches a payload of experimental satellites to the International Space Station. The satellites will be outfitted with communications devices that transfer data via lasers at 200 megabits per second.
Data transmissions at those speeds would be many times faster than the transmission rates of today’s satellite and spacecraft systems, according to NASA. The space agency said in a statement that Orbital’s laser satellites, if successful, could lead to “significantly enhanced communication speeds between space and Earth and a better understanding of laser communication between small satellites in low-Earth orbit.”
The launch is scheduled for 7:14 AM EST Sunday from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Orbital will send a pair of the satellites, called NanoRacks CubeSats, into space using its Cygnus spacecraft.
The Cyngus will have a laser device, as will the ground station down on Earth. Orbital will try to establish communications between the two satellites using all four laser devices. The satellites will additionally perform “proximity” maneuvers close to each other using steam-based propulsion systems, star trackers, and cameras to navigate.
NASA looks forward to not only see how well the lasers work, but also how well the small satellites can coordinate their flight operations. It said that the missions could lead to new uses for small satellites, such as enhanced communications among whole networks of Earth-orbiting satellites, higher-resolution imaging of Earth, and better tracking capabilities for Earth-based GPS for the military, tech companies, and weather and climate monitoring.