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NASA Tests Laser-Based Communications

November 13, 2017

Orbital ATK will launch its Cygnus spacecraft into orbit to the International Space Station, targeted for November 11, 2017, from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Cygnus will launch on an Antares rocket carrying crew supplies, equipment and scientific research to crewmembers aboard the station. The spacecraft, named the S.S. Gene Cernan after former NASA astronaut Eugene “Gene” Cernan, who is the last person to have walked on the moon, will deliver scientific investigations including those that will study communication and navigation, microbiology, animal biology and plant biology.

CubeSat used as a laser communication technology testbed

Traditional laser communication systems use transmitters that are far too large for small spacecraft. The Optical Communication Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) tests the functionality of laser-based communications using CubeSats that provide a compact version of the technology. Results from OCSD 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 Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) project uses CubeSats to test new types of technology in Earth's orbit. This work was funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program under the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

The Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) project addresses two cross-cutting capabilities of value to many future small spacecraft missions: high-speed optical transmission of data and small spacecraft proximity operations. Optical data rates demonstrated by OCSD are expected to reach 200 megabits per second (Mb/s) , a factor of 100 increase over current high-end CubeSat communications systems. The proximity sensors developed for this mission enable relative position measurement between two small satellites - a capability not previously demonstrated.

The OCSD project will produce three 1.5- unit (1.5U) CubeSats that will be launched as secondary payloads on two separate missions. Each CubeSat is about 4 inches x 4 inches x 6.7 inches (10 centimeters x 10 centimeters x 17 centimeters) and weighs approximately 5 pounds (2.5 kilograms). The first OCSD mission, with one satellite, launched on Oct. 8, 2015 aboard an Atlas rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This first OCSD flight was a risk reduction mission that allowed some checkout of the star trackers and important subsystems to include power, camera, GPS, radio and deployment mechanisms. It also allowed calibration and tool refinements to support the operational second flight of OCSD.

The OCSD 1.5U CubeSat Transmits Data Via Laser from Space to Ground.

The second OCSD mission, with two satellites, is scheduled to launch in late 2017.The satellites have been modified to incorporate the lessons learned during the first mission. For this second mission, laser communications system will be demonstrated in addition to the proximity operations demonstration, which will involve relative position measurements using cameras, beacons, laser rangefinders, and relative maneuvering using variable drag and propulsion. The novel propulsion system on OCSD uses water as a propellant, exhausted as steam.

The optical communications system on OCSD differs from other space-based laser communication systems because the laser is hard-mounted to the spacecraft body. The beam is pointed by controlling the orientation of the entire spacecraft. This makes the laser system much more compact than anything previously flown in space. The attitude control system developed for these satellites includes a pair of miniature star trackers, which are cameras that measure the position of stars for navigational purposes. These star trackers are expected to enable pointing to an accuracy of 0.05 degrees, which is 20 times the precision previously demonstrated in a satellite of this size.

The OCSD mission addresses the need for low-cost sensors that small spacecraft can use to assist in maneuvering and operating safely in close proximity to other spacecraft or objects in space. Capabilities in proximity operations will enable multiple small spacecraft to operate cooperatively during science or exploration missions, to approach another spacecraft or object for in-space observation or servicing, or to connect small spacecraft together to form larger systems or networks in space.

The potential for optical communications technology will not reach its limit with OCSD; it is anticipated that relatively simple upgrades, primarily to the attitude control system, will enable download rates of 2.5 gigabits per second (Gb/s) or higher. This would open the possibility of using small satellites in applications, such as synthetic aperture radar or hyperspectral Earth imaging, that produce volumes of data far beyond the capacity of radio-frequency downlink systems. It is also possible to use these satellites as data relay nodes in low-Earth orbit; a modest constellation of small satellites has the potential to provide low-latency, high-rate communications as a service for other satellites in orbit around Earth.

The OCSD satellites are developed and operated by The Aerospace Corporation of El Segundo, California.

The OCSD mission is managed and funded by the Small Spacecraft Technology Program (SSTP) within the Space Technology Mission Directorate. The SSTP expands U.S. capability to execute unique missions through rapid development and in space demonstration of capabilities for small spacecraft applicable to exploration, science, and the commercial space sector. The SSTP will enable new mission architectures through the use of small spacecraft with goals to expand their reach to new destinations, and challenging new environments.

Here are some highlights of research that will be delivered to the station:

Investigation tests bacterial antibiotic resistance in microgravity

Antibiotic resistance could pose a danger to astronauts, especially since microgravity has been shown to weaken human immune response. E. coli AntiMicrobial Satellite (EcAMSat) will study microgravity’s effect on bacterial antibiotic resistance. The experiment will expose two strains of E. coli, one with a resistance gene, the other without, to three different doses of antibiotics, then examine the viability of each group. Results from this investigation could contribute to determining appropriate antibiotic dosages to protect astronaut health during long-duration human spaceflight and help us understand how antibiotic effectiveness may change as a function of stress on Earth.

Hybrid solar antenna seeks solution to long distance communications in space

As space exploration increases, so will the need for improved power and communication technologies. The Integrated Solar Array and Reflectarray Antenna (ISARA), a hybrid solar power panel and communication solar antenna that can send and receive messages, tests the use of this technology in CubeSat-based environmental monitoring. ISARA may provide a solution for sending and receiving information to and from faraway destinations, both on Earth and in space.

Nitrogen fixation process tested in microgravity environment

The Biological Nitrogen Fixation in Microgravity via Rhizobium-Legume Symbiosis (Biological Nitrogen Fixation) investigation examines how low-gravity conditions affect the nitrogen fixation process of Microclover, a resilient and drought tolerant legume. The nitrogen fixation process, a process by which nitrogen in the atmosphere is converted into a usable form for living organisms, is a crucial element of any ecosystem necessary for most types of plant growth. This investigation could provide information on the space viability of the legume’s ability to use and recycle nutrients and give researchers a better understanding of this plant’s potential uses on Earth.

Life cycle of alternative protein source studied

Mealworms are high in nutrients and one of the most common sources of alternative protein in developing countries. The Effects of Microgravity on the Life Cycle of Tenebrio Molitor (Tenebrio Molitor) investigation studies how the microgravity environment affects the mealworm life cycle. In addition to alternative protein research, this investigation will provide information about animal growth under unique conditions.

Investigation studies advances in plant and crop growth in space

The Life Cycle of Arabidopsis thaliana in Microgravity investigation studies the formation and functionality of the Arabidopsis thaliana, a mustard plant with a well-known genome that makes it ideal for research, in microgravity conditions. The results from this investigation will contribute to an understanding of plant and crop growth in space, a vital aspect to long-term spaceflight missions.

The Biological Nitrogen Fixation and Tenebrio Molitor are student investigations in the Go for Launch! - Higher Orbits program and sponsored by Space Tango and the ISS National Lab, which is managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). The Arabidopsis thaliana investigation, also a student investigation, is a part of the Magnitude.io program, sponsored by Space Tango and CASIS.

OA-8 marks Orbital ATK’s eighth cargo delivery mission to the space station, and the research on board will join many other investigations currently happening aboard the orbiting laboratory. Follow @ISS_Research for more information about the science happening on station.

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