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Image credit: NASA

NASA is making a data modem driven by light

It'll test the photonic chip aboard the International Space Station in 2020.

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NASA

Now that photonic (that is, light-based) chips are a practical reality, they're going to get their ultimate test: space. NASA is developing an integrated photonics modem that will be used to test high-speed laser communications between Earth and spacecraft that are in low and geosynchronous orbits. And unlike the LADEE laser data test from 2013, this is very much intended for practical use -- the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) should be fully operational two years after its initial deployment.

The technology has a long way to go. NASA's modem won't go into service aboard the International Space Station until 2020, and it's currently very bulky (the size of two toaster ovens). However, it promises to dramatically improve how spacecraft talk to ground crews and each other. With 10 to 100 times more bandwidth, vehicles could deliver more advanced measurements and video across interplanetary distances -- imagine if a Mars rover sent back movies instead of the occasional photo. Photonics will ultimately require less power and physical space, too, so even the tiniest probes could transmit gobs of data.

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