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NASA’s Deep Space Optical Comm Demo Sends, Receives First Data
NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is shown in a clean room at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 8, 2022. DSOC’s gold-capped flight laser transceiver can be seen, near center, attached to the spacecraft.NASA/Ben Smegelsky DSOC, an experiment that could transform how spacecraft communicate, has achieved ‘first light,’ sending data via laser to and from far beyond the Moon for the first time.
NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment has beamed a near-infrared laser encoded with test data fromnearly 10 million miles (16 million kilometers) away – about 40 times farther than the Moon is from Earth – to the Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California. This is the farthest-ever demonstration of optical communications.
Riding aboard the recently launched Psyche spacecraft, DSOC is configured to send high-bandwidth test data to Earth during its two-year technology demonstration as Psyche travels to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California manages both DSOC and Psyche.
The tech demo achieved “first light” in the early hours of Nov. 14 after its flight laser transceiver – a cutting-edge instrument aboard Psyche capable of sending and receiving near-infrared signals – locked onto a powerful uplink laser beacon transmitted from the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory at JPL’s Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, California. The uplink beacon helped the transceiver aim its downlink laser back to Palomar (which is 100 miles, or 130 kilometers, south of Table Mountain) while automated systems on the transceiver and ground stations fine-tuned its pointing.
Learn more about how DSOC will be used to test high-bandwidth data transmission beyond the Moon for the first time – and how it could transform deep space exploration. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU “Achieving first light is one of many critical DSOC milestones in the coming months, paving the way toward higher-data-rate communications capable of sending scientific information, high-definition imagery, and streaming video in support of humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars,” said Trudy Kortes, director of Technology Demonstrations at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Test data also was sent simultaneously via the uplink and downlink lasers, a procedure known as “closing the link” that is a primary objective for the experiment. While the technology demonstration isn’t transmitting Psyche mission data, it works closely with the Psyche mission-support team to ensure DSOC operations don’t interfere with those of the spacecraft.
“Tuesday morning’stest was the first to fully incorporate the ground assets and flight transceiver, requiring the DSOC and Psyche operations teams to work in tandem,” said Meera Srinivasan, operations lead for DSOC at JPL. “It was a formidable challenge, and we have a lot more work to do, but for a short time, we were able to transmit, receive, and decode some data.”
Before this achievement, the project needed to check the boxes on several other milestones, from removing the protective cover for the flight laser transceiver to powering up the instrument. Meanwhile, the Psyche spacecraft is carrying out its own checkouts, including powering up its propulsion systems and testing instruments that will be used to study the asteroid Psyche when it arrives there in 2028.
First Light and First Bits
With successful first light, the DSOC team will now work on refining the systems that control the pointing of the downlink laser aboard the transceiver. Once achieved, the project can begin its demonstration of maintaining high-bandwidth data transmission from the transceiver to Palomar at various distances from Earth. This data takes the form of bits (the smallest units of data a computer can process) encoded in the laser’s photons – quantum particles of light. After a special superconducting high-efficiency detector array detects the photons, new signal-processing techniques are used to extract the data from the single photons that arrive at the Hale Telescope.
The DSOC experiment aims to demonstrate data transmission rates 10 to 100 times greater than the state-of-the-art radio frequency systems used by spacecraft today. Both radio and near-infrared laser communications utilize electromagnetic waves to transmit data, but near-infrared light packs the data into significantly tighter waves, enabling ground stations to receive more data. This will help future human and robotic exploration missions and support higher-resolution science instruments.
The flight laser transceiver operations team for NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration works in the Psyche mission support area at JPL in the early hours of Nov. 14, when the project achieved “first light.” NASA/JPL-Caltech DSOC ground laser transmitter operators pose for a photo at the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory at JPL’s Table Mountain Facility near Wrightwood, California, shortly after the technology demonstration achieved “first light” on Nov. 14.NASA/JPL-Caltech “Optical communication is a boon for scientists and researchers who always want more from their space missions, and will enable human exploration of deep space,” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, director of the Advanced Communications and Navigation Technologies Division within NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. “More data means more discoveries.”
While optical communication has been demonstrated in low Earth orbit and out to the Moon, DSOC is the first test in deep space. Like using a laser pointer to track a moving dime from a mile away, aiming a laser beam over millions of miles requires extremely precise “pointing.”
The demonstration also needs to compensate for the time it takes for light to travel from the spacecraft to Earth over vast distances: At Psyche’s farthest distance from our planet, DSOC’s near-infrared photons will take about 20 minutes to travel back (they took about 50 seconds to travel from Psyche to Earth during the Nov. 14 test). In that time, both spacecraft and planet will have moved, so the uplink and downlink lasers need to adjust for the change in location. “Achieving first light is a tremendous achievement. The ground systems successfully detected the deep space laser photons from DSOC’s flight transceiver aboard Psyche,” said Abi Biswas, project technologist for DSOC at JPL. “And we were also able to send some data, meaning we were able to exchange ‘bits of light’ from and to deep space.”
More About the Mission
DSOC is the latest in a series of optical communication demonstrations funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program within the agency’s Space Operations Mission Directorate.
The Psyche mission is led by Arizona State University. JPL is responsible for the mission’s overall management, system engineering, integration and test, and mission operations. Psyche is the 14th mission selected as part of NASA’s Discovery Program under the Science Mission Directorate, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center, managed the launch service. Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, provided the high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.
For more information about DSOC, visit:
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Last Updated Nov 16, 2023 Related Terms
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For the 13th consecutive year, NASA received an unmodified, or “clean,” opinion from an external auditor on its fiscal year 2023 financial statements.
NASA’s financial statements and budgetary reporting have received the highest possible audit opinion, certifying that it adheres to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles for federal agencies. These financial statements provide a comprehensive overview of the agency’s financial activities and disclosures for fiscal years 2023 and 2022. The audit opinion reaffirms NASA’s responsible stewardship of American tax dollars.
“For the 13th consecutive year, NASA continues to deliver an accurate and transparent report of our fiscal operations as we explore the unknown in air and space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Under the leadership of NASA’s Chief Financial Officer Margaret Vo Schaus, NASA will continue to uphold the American public’s trust in our goals and missions and ensure best financial reporting practices, which are critical to the agency’s success.”
In addition to the independent auditor’s opinion, the Agency Financial Report includes crucial supplementary information and preliminary top-level performance results, among other essential details.
“NASA continues to uphold the highest standards for prudent financial management, data integrity, and reliable financial reporting,” said NASA Chief Financial Officer Margaret Vo Schaus. “Our Agency Financial Report provides valuable insights into NASA’s financial performance as we further U.S. leadership in space and aeronautics; address the climate crisis; foster greater diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; and drive economic growth.”
The 2023 Agency Financial Report accounts for the agency’s mission and performance goals per its strategic plan and highlights the benefits it brings to all. The report details NASA’s advancements in achieving its long-term priorities, such as the utilization of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope; advancing climate change research; securing America’s position in space technology; and accomplishing the historic feat of landing the first woman and person of color on the Moon through the Artemis program, as a step towards human exploration of Mars.
For more information on NASA’s budget, visit:
Last Updated Nov 15, 2023 Location NASA Headquarters Related Terms
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Webb Telescope’s Marcia Rieke Awarded Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal
Dr. Marcia Rieke, principal investigator for the Near-Infrared Camera on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s (ASP) 2023 recipient of its most prestigious award. ASP’s Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal honors Rieke, a Regents Professor of astronomy and Elizabeth Roemer Endowed Chair, Steward Observatory, at the University of Arizona. Rieke’s award and achievements will be recognized at the ASP Awards Gala on Saturday, Nov. 11, in Redwood City, California.
Marcia Rieke, Regents’ Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona and principal investigator for the near-infrared camera on the James Webb Space Telescope.Credit: George Rieke / UAZ Groundbreaking Contributions
Rieke’s research has focused on infrared observations of the center of the Milky Way and high redshift galaxies in the early universe. Rieke is considered by many to be one of the “founding mothers of infrared astronomy,” and it is for her groundbreaking contributions to astronomical research at these wavelengths that she is being recognized and celebrated.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to my team that made all this possible. I am humbled that I’m on a list that includes the founders of infrared astronomy, Gerry Neugebauer and Frank Low,” said Rieke.
Rieke served as deputy principal investigator for the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and co-investigator for the multiband imaging photometer on NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope. Rieke was also involved with several infrared ground-based observatories, including the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory in Arizona.
Rieke’s nominators credit her leadership for the success of Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). As one of her nominators stated, “NIRCam was the Webb program’s most challenging instrument development effort. The instrument’s outstanding performance is due largely to the outstanding performance of its principal investigator. Marcia’s consistent focus, diligence, and ‘lead from the front’ approach under extremely difficult technical and programmatic circumstances presents an example for others to follow.”
Marcia Rieke, Regents’ Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona and principal investigator for the near-infrared camera on the James Webb Space Telescope.Credit: George Rieke / UAZ Rieke has authored 310 refereed publications, which have over 30,000 citations. Her deep knowledge and expertise were put into service as vice chair for program prioritization for the Astro 2010 Decadal Survey Committee’s report, “New Worlds, New Horizons.” Her landmark contributions to astronomical research and instrument development, as well as her service to public policy and public outreach, have been recognized nationally. She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2007, a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, and a legacy fellow of the American Astronomical Society in 2020. Rieke has also been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2023 for her contribution to the field of astronomy and key role in the development of cutting-edge instruments for Webb.
About the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal
ASP is an international non-profit scientific and educational organization, founded in 1889, that works to increase understanding and appreciation of astronomy.
The Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal is the organization’s highest award given annually to a professional astronomer in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding achievement and contributions to astrophysics research. It was established by Catherine Wolfe Bruce, an American philanthropist and patroness of astronomy.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s largest, most powerful, and most complex space science telescope ever built. Webb is solving mysteries in our solar system, looking beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
For more information about NASA’s Webb telescope visit: www.nasa.gov/webb
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Reaching New Frontiers in Science Supported by Public Participation
A brown dwarf roaming the Milky Way galaxy. Image by citizen scientist/artist William Pendrill.Credit: William Pendrill NASA’s Science Mission Directorate seeks knowledge and answers to profound questions that impact all people. Through competitions, challenges, crowdsourcing, and citizen science activities, NASA collaborates with the public to make scientific discoveries that help us better understand our planet and the space beyond. Multiple NASA science projects were supported through public participation in Fiscal Years 2021 and 2022, spanning pursuits in astrophysics, Earth science, heliophysics,1 and more.
NASA challenges in astrophysics seek to uncover new information about the origin, structure, evolution, and future of the universe, as well as other worlds outside our solar system.
Seeking potential planets in the backyard of our solar system, NASA invited the public to examine data from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission to discern moving celestial bodies. Human eyes are needed for the task because anomalies in the images often fool image processing technologies. The WISE mission continues to collect data, and the Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 citizen science project is still ongoing. But the project has discovered so far more than 3500 brown dwarfs (balls of gas too small to be considered stars), and one notable citizen scientist himself found 34 ultracool brown dwarfs with companions, now published in The Astronomical Journal.
To understand stars better, a citizen science project called Disk Detective 2.0 was launched in 2020 to evaluate disks, or belts, of material around stars. The original 2014 project resulted in the discovery of the longest-lived disks that form planets—dubbed “Peter Pan” disks—as well as the discovery of the youngest nearby disk around a brown dwarf. The relaunch offered a new batch of 150,000 stars in infrared wavelengths from NASA’s WISE mission and other data. As of May 2023, more than 12,000 volunteers had contributed to the project and 14 of those co-authored scientific papers based on their findings.
The Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE) is a concept for a mission that would combine a ground-based telescope with a space-based starshade to enable better views of exoplanets from Earth.
The Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE) is a concept for a mission that would combine a ground-based telescope with a space-based starshade to enable better views of exoplanets from Earth.
As part of early-stage study of this concept, NASA invited the public to develop 3D computer models of a lightweight starshade. Requirements for the starshade design included compact packaging, successful deployment in orbit, and a low-mass structure capable of maintaining its shape and alignment using as little spacecraft fuel as possible. The Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge received 60 entries, and the top five shared a $7,000 prize. First place combined inflatable tubes for compression structures and cables for tension.
The Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge asked participants to develop a lightweight starshade structure that could be used as part of the Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE) concept Earth Science
One goal of NASA’s Earth science pursuits is to map the connections between Earth’s vital processes and the climate effects of natural and human-caused changes. Multiple competitions are aiding our understanding of these interconnected systems.
A worldwide program called Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) has brought educators and students together since 1995, promoting science and learning about the environment. As one of the partner organizations for the program, NASA sponsored the NASA GLOBE Trees Challenge 2022: Trees in a Changing Climate to gather tree height observations. The data collected is compared with space-based observation systems to track tree height and growth rate as an indicator of ecosystem health. Volunteers from around the world have amassed more than 4,700 tree-height observations from over 1,500 locations in 50 countries.
A similar data-gathering effort—the Cooperative Open Online Landslide Repository (COOLR)—utilizes a web-based platform developed by NASA to share reports of landslides. The repository’s data is validating a model in development at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland, the Landslide Hazard Assessment for Situational Awareness (LHASA), to map areas of potential landslide hazard in real-time. LHASA incorporates landslide inventories from people around the world in a machine-learning framework to estimate the relative probability of landslide occurrence.
To develop more accurate air quality data products from NASA satellite missions, a public competition called NASA Airathon: Predict Air Quality2 asked participants to develop algorithms for estimating daily levels of surface-level air pollutants on Earth. Using NASA satellite data, model outputs, and ground measurements, the public estimated daily levels of particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across urban areas in the U.S., India, and Taiwan—all of which have readily available satellite data. The contest generated more than 1,200 submissions from over 1,000 participants and awarded $25,000 in prizes.
The ocean: it’s Earth’s largest ecosystem and the habitat for coral – one of the planet’s most unique and oldest life forms. While the concept for an iPad game called NeMO-Net could be applied to the search for life across the universe, the current application is assessing the health of coral reefs. Players help NASA classify coral reefs by painting 3D and 2D images of coral captured using the NASA FluidCam instrument, the highest-resolution remote sensing benthic imaging technology capable of removing ocean wave distortion. Data from the painted images feeds into NASA NeMO-Net, the first neural multi-modal observation and training network for global coral reef assessment. With 43,000 unique downloads of the game, there have been 71,000 classifications, of which 56,400 have been reviewed and confirmed by NASA.
NASA’s spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter in 2016, continues to explore the planet and its satellites with a suite of scientific instruments and a camera called JunoCam. The camera takes visible frequency images of Jupiter’s polar regions and its moons. Via the project website, citizen scientists create images from the raw JunoCam data and post their creations on the Juno website and social media platforms. Early during the prime mission, the project engaged with the public in an online voting campaign to plan image-taking during orbital passes around Jupiter (“perijoves”), but the effort was abandoned after the transition to the 53 day–orbit mission due to unfavorable evolution of the approach geometry.
Ideally, when a space rover lands on Mars, it will know where it is safe to drive, land, sleep, and hibernate—without any guidance from a human operator. An early step in developing this capability, AI4Mars, invited the public to label images of Mars terrain taken by the Curiosity rover. The goal is to train a machine learning algorithm to improve the rover’s ability to identify and avoid hazardous terrain, which is essential for autonomous exploration. Over 16,000 volunteers completed more than 632,000 classifications, and a model developed using the data has a total accuracy of 91%.
A self-portrait of NASA’s Curiosity rover taken on Sol 2082 (June 15, 2018). A Martian dust storm has reduced sunlight and visibility at the rover’s location in Gale Crater. Self-portraits are created using images taken by Curiosity’s Mars Hands Lens Imager (MAHLI). https://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA22486 Another ideal capability for a Mars rover is independent analysis of data to avoid the tedious process of data transmission from Mars to Earth and back. In the Mars Spectrometry: Detect Evidence for Past Habitability challenge, NASA engaged the public to build a model to automatically analyze mass spectrometry data from rock and soil samples. Out of 656 entries, a software engineer from Brisbane, Australia, won $15,000 for first place. The second-place winner from the United States received $7,500, and the third-place winner from India won $5,000.
Biological and Physical Sciences
One of the aims of biological science research at NASA is to understand how biological systems acclimate to spaceflight environments.
A unique classroom-based citizen science program called Growing Beyond Earth advances NASA’s research on growing plants in space. In its seventh year, the NASA program provides all the materials needed for the experiments. In total, more than 40,000 participating students and teachers have contributed hundreds of thousands of data points and tested 180 varieties of edible plants. As a result of their efforts, four types of vegetables were grown by NASA off-Earth, and two varieties have been successfully grown on the International Space Station.
NASA studies the Sun and its effects on Earth and the solar system—or heliophysics—to increase understanding of how the universe works, how to protect technology and astronauts in space, and how stars contribute to the habitability of planets throughout the universe.
SOHO captured this image of a gigantic coronal hole hovering over the sun’s north pole on July 18, 2013. To enable better discovery and tracking of sungrazing comets—the large but faint objects made of dust and ice in close orbit of the Sun—NASA held the NASA SOHO Comet Search. Over $55,000 in prizes was awarded to solutions to reduce background noise in data recorded by the Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO), one of the instruments on the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft. Hundreds of participants from around the world devised artificial intelligence and machine learning approaches, which led to the discovery of two previously unidentified comets, including a difficult-to-detect non-group comet.
The preliminary results we’re already seeing come out of this challenge highlight the value of the open science movement.
NASA's Deputy Chief Science Data Officer
Space Apps 2021
In its tenth year, NASA’s 2021 International Space Apps Challenge took place in 320 locations across 162 countries or territories. The hackathon for coders, scientists, designers, storytellers, makers, technologists, and innovators around the world offered 28 different topics to solve using open data from NASA and others. This year’s winners included an app for homeowners to simplify data from NASA’s Prediction of Worldwide Renewable Energy Resources (POWER) web services portal to help make solar panel purchasing decisions and encourage solar energy use. Another winning app detects, quantifies, follows, and projects the movement of plastic debris in the ocean with high accuracy.
Last Updated Nov 07, 2023 Related Terms
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