NASA streams cat video from deep, deep space
On Dec. 11, NASA engineers anxiously gathered at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to watch a cat video, wondering if it would be in the pristine high definition they expected.
To his relief, it was. For the first time, high-definition video – this one of a lab employee's cat named Taters – was streamed from 18.6 million miles away, or about 80 times the distance of the Moon from Earth, the farthest ever.
This demonstration was part of NASA Deep Space Optical Communications The experiment, which aims to improve the infrastructure for communications beyond Earth orbit. As an example, if humans were to go to Mars, large amounts of data would need to be transmitted over long distances. This demonstration is another step toward such a possibility.
“This would be similar to the capability you would want if you were sending an astronaut to the surface of Mars or something like that,” said project technologist Dr. Abhijit Biswas. “You want to keep in constant contact with them.”
The demonstration was done with the help of NASA's Psyche spacecraft, which was launched on October 13 with the aim of exploring an asteroid of the same name. The DSOC experiment is using laser communications as opposed to traditional radio frequencies in an effort to transfer large amounts of data at faster speeds over greater distances. (Video of Tatars chasing a laser pointer. In 1928, a statue of the cartoon character Felix the Cat was used for testing) television broadcast,
Transmitted data rates of 267 megabits per second are comparable to rates on Earth, which are often between 100 and 300 megabits per second. But Dr. Vishwas urged caution regarding the consequences of the demonstration.
“This is a first step,” he said. “There are still significant requirements for ground infrastructure and things like that to turn this from a proof of concept into something that is operational and reliable.”
The video was broadcast using flying laser transceiver, one of several pieces of new hardware being deployed for the first time. The DSOC system is composed of three parts: the transceiver, which was installed on the Psyche spacecraft, and two components on Earth: a ground laser transmitter (about a 90-minute drive from the laboratory) and a ground laser receiver at Palomar Observatory in Southern California. .
“It's a bit shocking that you're able to do all that in the end,” said Dr. Meera Srinivasan, the project's head of operations.
Dr. Biswas and Dr. Srinivasan, along with other NASA engineers, have been working to develop this technology for decades. The focus was on enhancing optical communications technology that was already being used on satellites orbiting very close to Earth. Initially, before the Psyche mission, the team faced obstacles because the signal was very weak. So NASA developed technologies to enhance capabilities. Deep space, Dr. Biswas said, is “the new frontier.”
To begin the process for CAT video, the ground transmitter first sent the laser beam up. The aim must be accurate. Psyche then locked on to that signal and sent the content, which was preloaded by the NASA team, back to the receiver. For the transmission to work, it needed to be done during a cloud-free night, allowing a reasonable line of sight.
“There are lots of small steps,” Dr. Biswas said. “Everyone has to come to their place at the right time. And that's the scary part because we're doing it for the first time. This has not been done before. It's not like, 'Oh, we know that if you do this, that will happen.' We are working on all these things in our own way.
He added: “And then once it all works, it seems like it's very easy. Why were we worried in the first place?”
Now, the DSOC project is out to test their limits. At the end of June, NASA engineers hope to be able to transmit over 10 times that distance: 186 million miles.