The beam was received by the Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego as part of NASA's Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment.
Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) sent a near-infrared laser encoded with test data from nearly 10 million miles away – about 40 times farther than the moon is from Earth, the agency said in a press release.
The tech demo achieved “first light” in the early hours of Nov. 14.
"The ground systems successfully detected the deep space laser photons from DSOC’s flight transceiver aboard Psyche,” JPL project technologist Abi Biswas said. “And we were also able to send some data, meaning we were able to exchange ‘bits of light’ from and to deep space.”
Biswas called it "a tremendous achievement."
While this kind of optical communication has been demonstrated in shorter distances from the Earth, DSOC is the first test in deep space, NASA said. This requires a tremendous amount of accuracy, and the agency compared it to "using a laser pointer to track a moving dime from a mile away."
The laser beam is made up of "bits," the smallest units of data a computer can process, which are encoded within particles of light. Scientists then decode the data as the particles are read by a special "superconducting high-efficiency detector array."
A director of technology demonstrations at NASA, Trudy Kortes, said the milestone will help pave the way toward "humanity's next giant leap: sending humans to Mars."
The experiment aims to illuminate the benefits of shifting from the use of electromagnetic waves to near-infrared light instead, which "packs the data into significantly tighter waves, enabling ground stations to receive more data," NASA said.
According to experts, this will help future human and robotic deep space exploration missions and support higher-resolution technology.
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Engineers plan to focus on refining the accuracy of the technology, and will then begin demonstrating its high-bandwidth transmission capabilities at various distances from Earth.
“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,” Jason Mitchell, director of the Advanced Communications and Navigation Technologies Division at NASA said. “More data means more discoveries.”
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