NASA is planning to demonstrate a new optically based communications system that could dramatically increase the speed at which images from space are retrieved. The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LRCD), in theory, could improve data transmission rates by anywhere from 10 to 100 times. If successful, the project could reduce the time it takes to transmit high-resolution images from Mars, for example, from 90 minutes to just a few minutes, and ultimately lead to live streaming of HD video from the Moon and beyond.
LRCD would augment NASA's legacy radio-based network, operating on a fleet of tracking and data relay satellites and a network of ground stations, with optically-based systems. NASA plans to transmit digital data via lasers from specially equipped ground stations to an experimental payload. The payload would include telescopes, lasers, mirrors, detectors, a pointing and tracking system, control electronics, and several modems. Once the payload receives the data, it would then relay it back to ground stations in Hawaii and Southern California.
The strategy was likened by LRCD Principal Investigator Dave Israel to "moving FiOS to space," referring to Verizon's fiber Internet.
If things all go as planned, the space-bound component of the LRCD would be launched in 2016, hosted on a commercial communications satellite developed by Space Systems/Loral. The trial would run for three years.