spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy

NASA Just Received Laser And Radio Messages Together From Even Deeper Space

New tests show even more exciting ways to communicate with spacecraft beyond Earth.


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Alfredo (he/him) has a PhD in Astrophysics on galaxy evolution and a Master's in Quantum Fields and Fundamental Forces.

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

Edited by Maddy Chapman

Maddy is a Editor and Writer at IFLScience, with a degree in biochemistry from the University of York.

A radio antenna and on it a small square device. Inside there are seven hexagonal mirrors in a bee-hive formation

The new optical device attached to the radio antenna.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Over the last few months, NASA has been using its Psyche spacecraft to test a whole new communication system. The probe's main mission is to visit an asteroid of the same name (16 Psyche) but on its journey there it has been sending laser messages back to Earth.

NASA is testing Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) – employing a near-infrared laser to send messages back to Earth. In November, the first test detected the laser signal from 16 million kilometers (10 million miles) away using the Hale telescope, which was for decades the largest telescope on Earth. Among the messages, there was also a cat video.


DSOC has the advantage compared to radio waves of better bandwidth speed, so we can get more data faster. But it has some challenges too, like making sure the systems are well aligned and getting new facilities that can receive the messages. So researchers consider a combination of radio and laser could be the best of both worlds and the new tests show that you can retrofit the radio antennas to do both.

The test downlinked data from twice as far as the previous test, from 32 million kilometers (20 million miles). On January 1, they downloaded a picture of the Psyche team at a rate of 15.63 megabits per second. That’s 40 times the speed you get from radio frequency.

A photo of the Psyche team
This is the photo of the project team that was beamed from deep space.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Our hybrid antenna has been able to successfully and reliably lock onto and track the DSOC downlink since shortly after the tech demo launched,” Amy Smith, NASA’s Deep Space Network deputy manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement. “It also received Psyche’s radio frequency signal, so we have demonstrated synchronous radio and optical frequency deep space communications for the first time.”

A small device made of seven hexagonal mirrors was retrofitted on the existing radio antenna of Deep Space Station 13, which is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network in the Goldstone complex in California. A high-exposure camera was attached to the antenna subreflector at the center of the dish delivering the data from Psyche.


“It’s a high-tolerance optical system built on a 34-meter [112-foot] flexible structure,” said Barzia Tehrani, communications ground systems deputy manager and delivery manager for the hybrid antenna at JPL. “We use a system of mirrors, precise sensors, and cameras to actively align and direct laser from deep space into a fiber reaching the detector.”

The proof of concept will be tested over and over again. The hope is to still be able to track in June when Psyche would be at 2.5 times the distance Earth is from the Sun. That is as far as Mars gets to us and if the system works, it would mean much more data-intensive transmission from the Red Planet.

This artist's concept shows what Deep Space Station-23, a new antenna dish at the Deep Space Network's complex in Goldstone, California, will look like when complete in several years. in the middle of rhw edio antenna hexagonal optical mirrors are visible creating a shiny beehive
A future multi-wavelength antenna might look like this.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The seven-segment system is a precursor for a potential 64-mirror system that would guarantee more power and better precision. And they can be added to the existing antennas of the Deep Space Network without needing to build new bespoke facilities.

“For decades, we have been adding new radio frequencies to the DSN’s giant antennas located around the globe, so the most feasible next step is to include optical frequencies,” said Tehrani. “We can have one asset doing two things at the same time; converting our communication roads into highways and saving time, money, and resources.”


spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy
  • tag
  • nasa,

  • laser,

  • Astronomy,

  • deep space,

  • Psyche,

  • optical communication