Data Crunching

NASA unveiled a one of a kind modem that uses light-based technology to dramatically improve the speed of communication between a spacecraft and its groundstations.

The device is scheduled for testing on the International Space Station in 2020 and is part of a bigger NASA initiative called Laser Communications Relay Demonstrations (LCRD). This laser system is a significant update to current radio frequency (RF) communications. Ultimately, it will allow 10 to 100 times faster data transmission than any of the available technologies today.

The LCRD project is also the basis of an ongoing operational system that is set to begin once initial tests of the device are completed. In the end, the project intends to demonstrate the feasibility of a laser communications setup anchored on the new integrated-photonics modem.


The project has been dubbed ILLUMA, which is short for Integrated LCRD LEO (low-Earth orbit) User Modem and Amplifier. It's kind of a mouthful.

The device is roughly the size of a mobile phone and is smaller than current fiber-optic receivers used in spacecraft today.

LCRD Image Credit: NASA

"Integrated photonics are like an integrated circuit, except they use light rather than electrons to perform a wide variety of optical functions," said Don Cornwell, director of NASA's Advanced Communication and Navigation Division. "This technology will enable all types of NASA missions, not just optical communications on LCRD."

"We've pushed this for a long time," adds lead ILLUMA developer Mike Krainak from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre. "The technology will simplify optical system design. It will reduce the size and power consumption of optical devices, and improve reliability, all while enabling new functions from a lower-cost system."

The added functionality (and the promise of the cost-efficiency of integrated photonics versus fiber-optics) could also potentially find its way to consumers—should it prove to be successful. The faster data transmissions can be applied to everything from medical imaging and manufacturing to data centers.

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