International Space Station to fire video-carrying lasers at Earth

Credit: JPL

If sci-fi is any meter by which to judge these things, firing lasers at planets is usually a pretty disastrous idea. Thankfully, though, there's no sign that the Galactic Empire has taken charge of the International Space Station (ISS), since that's just what the folks at NASA are planning to do in the coming months. The laser is called OPALS (short for Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science) and it's not gonna hurt a bit.

OPALS's reason for visiting the ISS is to test our ability to beam video and other information through Earth's atmosphere with lasers. Think of it as a modern-day equivalent to Star Trek's subspace radio. If it's successful, OPALS will be capable of boosting our space-faring communication bandwidth from the current standard of 200 to 400 kilobits per second to a much more respectable 50 megabits per second. To recount the words of the project's systems engineer, Bogdan Oaida: "It's like upgrading from dial-up to DSL."

Opals is aboard today's SpaceX rocket, and so as long as Elon Musk's crew doesn't pull anything crazy, it'll be delivered to the ISS in practically no time. Once aboard and functional, the OPALS laser will locate a ground-based telescope and form a laser communication link. Videos will then be fired through the laser beam, each lasting about 100 seconds while the ISS and ground telescope are in line-of-sight.

DSL in space is great, but NASA is basically just using OPALS as a test bed for even more powerful laser communications down the line. Someday, NASA engineers envision the ISS as a relay station for true high-speed multi-gigabit-per-second communication between Earth and our far-flung spacecraft and colonies.


For the latest tech stories, follow DVICE on Twitter
@dvice or find us on Facebook