NASA, MIT send laser internet to the moon

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Hong Kong currently boasts the fastest Internet speeds on Earth. However, Internet speeds on the moon are as much as 10 times faster than those found in Hong Kong. The key behind the large difference in speeds is the lasers that are being used to carry Internet from Earth to ships exploring the moon.

NASA and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) worked together on this project, called the Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration (LLCD) in MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Mass. The project attempted to beam data via lasers to and from the moon in the interest of significantly decreasing the amount of time it would take for satellites exploring space to communicate with scientists back on Earth.

The LLCD project has been extremely successful. The laser signals carrying Internet were recorded at a maximum speed of 622 Megabits per second (Mbps), significantly faster than Hong Kong’s average connection speed of 63.6 Mbps, which is the best connection speed on Earth. In addition, researchers found that the signals could be transmitted when the moon was high and low in the sky, through thin clouds and in a turbulent atmosphere.

One of the tests that NASA and MIT ran was sending an HD video of Bill Nye up to the moon. It took 1.3 seconds for the video to reach the moon, and another 1.3 seconds for the video to come back to Earth. Combined with processing delay, the videos were sent to the moon and received back on Earth within seven seconds.

Dan Boroson, the LLCD design team lead, spoke about the project at the SPIE Photonics West conference on Feb. 3, saying, “The system did what it needed to do. The concept is right, and the system is reliable. We think it’s ready for primetime.”

There are many potential uses for laser Internet. Laser communications could, in the future, replace radio communication. Radio waves require larger systems and are very slow in transmitting data. Lasers are much faster and would transmit data from our exploring satellites in a much more efficient manner. It is also possible that the technology could be used for communications on Earth in the future as well.

Gregory L. Comer, a Professor of Physics at SLU, weighed in on the topic.

“For communications where we are sending packets of data from Point A to Point B, lasers are much more efficient radio waves,” Comer said. “Lasers can send data with less wastage of data, and less signal degradation. They can do this because they are so much more compact.”

This compactness, according to Comer, is due to the fact the photons found in lasers are amplified, which then forms a very tight beam that does not disperse. Just as the light from a laser pointer is focused and forms a strong dot of light, lasers can transmit a very large amount of data in a compact way.

However, this doesn’t mean that lasers will completely replace radio communications. Because radio waves are transmitted in all directions and the signals are not receiver-specific, they are more useful for transmissions that need to reach a larger target audience, such as television and radio broadcasts. Still, for communications in which the signal needs to be sent over extremely large distances, especially when the signals only needs to go from one specific point to another, laser communications offer data transmission speeds vastly improved over the speeds of radio waves.