An experimental antenna has received near-infrared and radio frequency laser signals from NASA’s Psyche spacecraft as it travels through deep space. This shows that it is possible to adapt NASA’s giant Deep Space Network (DSN) satellite dishes, which communicate with spacecraft via radio waves, for optical or laser communications.
The 34-meter 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 deep space optical communications (DSOC) laser transceiver technology demonstration flight travels with the Psyche spacecraft, which launched on October 13, 2023.
“Our hybrid antenna has been able to successfully and reliably lock and track the DSOC downlink since shortly after the launch of the technical demonstration,” said Amy Smith, deputy director of DSN at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. California, in a statement.
“It also received Psyche’s radio frequency signal, so we have demonstrated synchronous radio and optical frequency communications in deep space for the first time,” Smith added.
By the end of 2023, the hybrid antenna transmitted data from 32 million kilometers away at a speed of 15.63 megabits per second, about 40 times faster than radio frequency communications at that distance. On January 1, 2024, the antenna transmitted a photograph of the equipment that had been uploaded to the DSOC prior to the launch of Psyche.
To detect laser photons (quantum particles of light), seven ultra-precise segmented mirrors were placed inside the curved surface of the hybrid antenna. These segments, which resemble the hexagonal mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, mimic the light-gathering aperture of a 1-meter-aperture telescope.
As laser photons arrive at the antenna, each mirror reflects the photons and precisely redirects them toward a high-exposure camera connected to the antenna subreflector suspended above the center of the dish. Officials hope 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 between the Sun and 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 antenna’s seven-segment reflector is a proof of concept for an expanded, more powerful version with 64 segments (the equivalent of an 8-meter aperture telescope) that could be used in the future.
DSOC is paving the way for higher data rate communications capable of transmitting complex scientific information, videos and high-definition images in support of humanity’s next great leap: sending humans to Mars. The tech demo recently streamed the first ultra-high-definition video from deep space at record-breaking bit rates.
The above article has been published by a news agency with minor changes to the title and text.