Space lasers: coming soon

Look out “Star Wars” fans. There will be lasers shooting through space sooner than you think. But these lasers won’t be used to blow up planets, but rather as a form of communication. NASA plans to launch the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, on Sept. 6. Part of this satellite’s mission while orbiting the moon is to transmit data back to Earth using a new laser transmitter that would send data at an astounding rate of over one hundred million bits per second. This would be a vast improvement over the radio transmissions from space probes, which travel at only about a hundred bits per second, and microwave transmission, which travels at two thousand six hundred bits per second. LADEE will also be able to send six times the amount of information at once and use 25 percent less energy compared to current space transmitters. This could lead to 3D and high-definition photographs and videos being standard on all new space probes.

Not only can the new optical communication laser send massive amounts of information at faster speeds, but it’s also more secure. The laser used is one hundred times shorter than conventional radio waves; this means that a smaller antenna is needed to receive the information sent, which makes it less susceptible to interference and to be picked up by outsiders. Because radio waves sent through space tend to dissipate and expand as they travel, the receiving dishes tend to be very large. Dispersion still occurs with the optical laser but to a lesser extent.

While the optical laser communications would be a large step forward for space communication, it is not without its faults. Optic lasers can be limited in transmission by weather on Earth, like fog, rain, and snow. Background sources of light, like the sun and the sun’s reflection off of the moon, could be picked up by the satellite’s receiver and translated into gibberish data. The beam is also subject to scintillation—a flash of light given off by transparent particles in the atmosphere when the laser passes through them, which could also be misinterpreted.

The LADEE will commence operation for 30 days after arriving in the moon’s orbit and if successful, this could usher in a new era of space exploration. We would be able to observe the surface of planets in details yet unseen by humans and at faster rates. If colonies were established on other planets like the proposed one to Mars, then messages sent between us and them would only have a delay of seconds as opposed to minutes. It would also mean easier transmission of commands to remote rovers and probes, which allow for deeper expeditions into space and the possibility of mining asteroids for precious metals.


Graphic by Joe Fraser.

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