25 April 2014
Just before NASA’s latest Moon mission ended last week, an ESA telescope received laser signals from the spacecraft, achieving data speeds like those used by many to watch movies at home via fibre-optic Internet.
During an intense, three-day effort starting on 1 April, ESA’s Optical Ground Station in Spain received data signals via laser from the Moon at the stunning speed of 80 megabits per second.
The signals were transmitted from NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, from a distance of 400 000 km. LADEE completed its seven-month exploration and technology mission on 17 April in a planned impact on the Moon.
The speed is high enough to transmit an entire movie DVD in about eight minutes and is many times faster than provided by traditional radio links used by today’s spacecraft.
Faster than traditional radio
“We had already achieved 40 Mbit/s in our first round of laser communication with LADEE in October, so we’re pretty happy that the final test transmissions were able to double that,” says Klaus-Juergen Schulz, responsible for tracking station engineering at ESA’s ESOC operations centre.
“We also demonstrated that we could transmit laser signals to LADEE and even obtain highly accurate range data, just like our traditional but much larger radio tracking stations can. Overall, the test series has been a big success.”
ESA’s station in Spain’s Canary Islands was equipped with advanced technology developed in Switzerland, France and Denmark that could communicate with LADEE using infrared laser beams.