On December 11, NASA engineers anxiously gathered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to watch a video of a cat, wondering whether it would be in the pristine high definition they had hoped for.
To their relief, it was. For the first time, a high-definition video – this one of a lab employee’s cat named Taters – was streamed from 18.6 million miles away, or about 80 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon , the farthest ever seen.
The demonstration was part of NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications experiment, aimed at improving communications infrastructure beyond Earth orbit. For example, if humans were to go to Mars, there is a need to transmit larger amounts of data over a greater distance. This demonstration marked another step towards that possibility.
“It would be about the same capability that you would want to have if you sent an astronaut to the surface of Mars or something like that,” said Dr. Abhijit Biswas, the project’s technologist. “You want to have constant contact with them.”
The demonstration was carried out with the help of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, which launched on October 13 with the aim of exploring an asteroid of the same name. The DSOC experiment uses laser communications, as opposed to traditional radio frequencies, in an attempt to transfer large amounts of data at higher speeds over longer distances. (The video shows Taters chasing a laser pointer. In 1928, a statue of the cartoon character Felix the Cat was used to test television broadcasts.)
The transmitted data rate of 267 megabits per second is comparable to the speed on Earth, which is often between 100 and 300 megabits per second. But Dr Biswas urged caution over the results of the event.
“This is the first step,” he said. “There are still significant requirements for ground infrastructure and things like that to turn something that is sort of a proof of concept into something that is operational and reliable.”
The video was transmitted using a flight laser transceiver, one of several new pieces of hardware used for the first time. The DSOC system consists of three parts: the transceiver, which was installed aboard the Psyche spacecraft, and two components on Earth: a ground-based laser transmitter (about a 90-minute drive from the lab) and a ground-level laser receiver Palomar Observatory in Southern California.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing that you were able to do all of this in the end,” said Dr. Meera Srinivasan, the project’s operations manager.
Dr. Biswas and Dr. Srinivasan, along with other NASA engineers, have been working to develop this technology for decades. The goal was to enhance optical communications technology already used on satellites orbiting much closer to Earth. Initially, before the Psyche mission, the team faced obstacles because the signal was too weak. So NASA developed technologies to extend the capabilities. Deep space, Dr. Biswas said, is “the new frontier.”
To begin the process for videoing the cat, the ground transmitter first sent out the laser beam. The purpose had to be precise. Psyche then locked onto that signal and sent the content, which had been preloaded by the NASA team, back to the receiver. For the transmission to work, it had to be done during a cloudless night, which allowed for proper visibility.
“There are a lot of small steps,” Dr. Biswas said. “Everyone has to go to the right place at the right time. And that’s the terrifying part because we’re doing this for the first time. This has never been done before. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we know if you do this, it will happen.’ We are working to overcome all these things.
He added: “And then once everything works, it seems like it’s so easy. Why were we worried in the first place?
Now, the DSOC project wants to test its limits. By the end of June, NASA engineers expect to be able to transmit from a distance 10 times greater: 186 million miles.