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      Deep Space Station 13 at NASA’s Goldstone complex in California – part of the agency’s Deep Space Network – is an experimental antenna that has been retrofitted with an optical terminal. In a first, this proof of concept received both radio frequency and laser signals from deep space at the same time.NASA/JPL-Caltech Capable of receiving both radio frequency and optical signals, the DSN’s hybrid antenna has tracked and decoded the downlink laser from DSOC, aboard NASA’s Psyche mission.
      An experimental antenna has received both radio frequency and near-infrared laser signals from NASA’s Psyche spacecraft as it travels through deep space. This shows it’s possible for the giant dish antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which communicate with spacecraft via radio waves, to be retrofitted for optical, or laser, communications.
      By packing more data into transmissions, optical communication will enable new space exploration capabilities while supporting the DSN as demand on the network grows.
      A close-up of the optical terminal on Deep Space Station 13 shows seven hexagonal mirrors that collect signals from DSOC’s downlink laser. The mirrors reflect the light into a camera directly above, and the signal is then sent to a detector via a system of optical fiber.NASA/JPL-Caltech The 34-meter (112-foot) radio-frequency-optical-hybrid antenna, called Deep Space Station 13, has tracked the downlink laser from NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration since November 2023. The tech demo’s flight laser transceiver is riding with the agency’s Psyche spacecraft, which launched on Oct. 13, 2023.
      The hybrid antenna is located at the DSN’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, near Barstow, California, and isn’t part of the DSOC experiment. The DSN, DSOC, and Psyche are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
      “Our hybrid antenna has been able to successfully and reliably lock onto and track the DSOC downlink since shortly after the tech demo launched,” said Amy Smith, DSN deputy manager at JPL. “It also received Psyche’s radio frequency signal, so we have demonstrated synchronous radio and optical frequency deep space communications for the first time.”
      Now that Goldstone’s experimental hybrid antenna has proved that both radio and laser signals can be received synchronously by the same antenna, purpose-built hybrid antennas (like the one depicted here in an artist’s concept) could one day become a reality.NASA/JPL-Caltech During a test of the experimental antenna, this photo of the project team at JPL was downlinked by the DSOC transceiver aboard Psyche. NASA/JPL-Caltech In late 2023, the hybrid antenna downlinked data from 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) away at a rate of 15.63 megabits per second – about 40 times faster than radio frequency communications at that distance. On Jan. 1, 2024, the antenna downlinked a team photograph that had been uploaded to DSOC before Psyche’s launch.
      Two for One
      In order to detect the laser’s photons (quantum particles of light), seven ultra-precise segmented mirrors were attached to the inside of the hybrid antenna’s curved surface. Resembling the hexagonal mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, these segments mimic the light-collecting aperture of a 3.3-foot (1-meter) aperture telescope. As the laser photons arrive at the antenna, each mirror reflects the photons and precisely redirects them into a high-exposure camera attached to the antenna’s subreflector suspended above the center of the dish.
      The laser signal collected by the camera is then transmitted through optical fiber that feeds into a cryogenically cooled semiconducting nanowire single photon detector. Designed and built by JPL’s Microdevices Laboratory, the detector is identical to the one used at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, in San Diego County, California, which acts as DSOC’s downlink ground station.
      “It’s a high-tolerance optical system built on a 34-meter 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.”
      Tehrani hopes the antenna will be sensitive enough to detect the laser signal sent from Mars at its farthest point from Earth (2 ½ times the distance from the Sun to Earth). Psyche will be at that distance in June on its way to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to investigate the metal-rich asteroid Psyche.
      The seven-segment reflector on the antenna is a proof of concept for a scaled-up and more powerful version with 64 segments – the equivalent of a 26-foot (8-meter) aperture telescope – that could be used in the future.
      An Infrastructure Solution
      DSOC is paving the way for higher-data-rate communications capable of transmitting complex scientific information, video, and high-definition imagery in support of humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars. The tech demo recently streamed the first ultra-high-definition video from deep space at record-setting bitrates.
      Retrofitting radio frequency antennas with optical terminals and constructing purpose-built hybrid antennas could be a solution to the current lack of a dedicated optical ground infrastructure. The DSN has 14 dishes distributed across facilities in California, Madrid, and Canberra, Australia. Hybrid antennas could rely on optical communications to receive high volumes of data and use radio frequencies for less bandwidth-intensive data, such as telemetry (health and positional information).
      “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.”
      More About the Mission
      DSOC is the latest in a series of optical communication demonstrations funded by NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions (TDM) program and the agency’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages DSOC for TDM within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and SCaN within the agency’s Space Operations Mission Directorate.
      For more about NASA’s optical communications projects, visit:
      https://www.nasa.gov/lasercomms/
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      Ian J. O’Neill
      Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
      818-354-2649
      ian.j.oneill@jpl.nasa.gov
      2024-012
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      Last Updated Feb 08, 2024 Related Terms
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      Very large space-based RF antennas can be large and expensive to manufacture and deploy. These problems become more challenging for cases when an array of antennas are needed such as for correlation interferometers that provide high spatial resolution of Earth and space. The proposal will specifically examine the potential applicability of novel fiber-based antennas to L-band radiometry for the purpose of generating high resolution soil moisture and sea surface salinity data. Initial estimates indicate that a x10 improvement on resolution may be possible with long fiber-based antenna arrays. Lincoln Laboratory has been investigating the ability to produce large flexible RF antenna arrays embedded in polymer fibers. These lightweight fibers are flexible enough to be coiled and uncoiled, thus facilitating transport and deployment. The metal that forms the antenna structure and other conductive elements is embedded inside a polymer boule that is heated and drawn to form a novel type of fiber. The resulting fiber thus has multiple materials embedded inside for the ability to support sensing capabilities and other functionalities. Thus, this fiber fabrication process may also lead to a cost-effective means to create very large antennas. This work will include analysis of the required antenna performance and the ability of fiber-based antennas to meet those requirements, deployment strategies, satellite specifics, space tolerance of components and materials, a preliminary system-level design, and concept of operations.
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      NASA’s LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) and the new space station demonstration, ILLUMA-T (Integrated LCRD Low Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal), successfully exchanged data for the first time. LCRD and ILLUMA-T are demonstrating how a user mission, in this case the space station, can benefit from a laser communications relay located in geosynchronous orbit.
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      The benefits of laser communications: more efficient, lighter systems, increased security, and more flexible ground systems.NASA / Dave Ryan On Nov. 9, NASA’s SpaceX 29th commercial resupply services mission launched cargo and new science experiments, including ILLUMA-T, to the space station. Following its arrival, the payload was installed onto the station’s Japanese Experiment Module-Exposed Facility.
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      “ILLUMA-T’s first link with LCRD – known as first light – is the latest demonstration proving that laser communications is the future.” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, director of SCaN’s Advanced Communications and Navigation Technology division. “Laser communications will not only return more data from science missions, but could serve as NASA’s critical, two-way link to keep astronauts connected to Earth as they explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”
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      NASA's ILLUMA-T payload achieved First Light with LCRD. In this video, Matt Magsamen explains the First Light milestone. Shortly after space station installation, operation engineers began conducting on-orbit testing to ensure the ILLUMA-T payload operated nominally. Now, it is communicating with LCRD, a relay launched in 2021 that has conducted over 300 experiment configurations to help NASA refine laser communications technologies. LCRD and ILLUMA-T are exchanging data at 1.2 gigabits-per-second.

      “We have demonstrated that we can overcome the technical challenges for successful space communications using laser communications. We are now performing operational demonstrations and experiments that will allow us to optimize our infusion of proven technology into our missions to maximize our exploration and science,” said David Israel, a NASA space communications and navigation architect.
      NASA’s Laser Communications Roadmap: Demonstrating laser communications capabilities on multiple missions in a variety of space regimes.NASA/Dave Ryan The LCRD experiments are conducted with industry, academia, and other government agencies. ILLUMA-T is now LCRD’s first in-space user experiment. NASA is still accepting experiments to work with LCRD. Interested parties should contact lcrd-experiments@nasa.onmicrosoft.com for more information.

      ILLUMA-T is funded by NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The payload is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Partners include the International Space Station program office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts.

      For more information: https://nasa.gov/scan

      About the Author
      Katherine Schauer
      Katherine Schauer is a writer for the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program office and covers emerging technologies, commercialization efforts, exploration activities, and more.
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