The International Space Station has played a role in some pretty sensational headlines this past year. Back in June, NASA made the news when it transmitted a high-definition video from ISS to Earth via a laser communications system named OPALS. The transmission was the first of its kind, evidence of a new era for NASA and an exciting future in deep space exploration.
Resource sat down with Matthew Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), to talk about the background of the project and the skinny on what’s been happening with the system during the past six months. “OPALS was kind of…a very low cost and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants project to get something operational on the Space Station so we could just kind of play around and experiment with it without a lot of investment,” he told us.
Regardless of the fact that it was sparsely funded, the technology that Abrahamson and his team eventually produced was a game-changer for the organization. OPALS uses lasers to beam “data rates between 10 and 1,000 times higher than current space communications,” says NASA’s website. Normally, these space systems use radio waves, which take hours of time to send information back to Earth. By using focused laser energy, NASA can transmit large amounts of data, such as videos, from the International Space Station down to our planet in a matter of minutes.
“There is incredible interest in the technology because this is one of our bottlenecks in space, especially at JPL, where we are doing most of the robotics,” Abrahamson said. “We have these very capable kinds of instruments out there that can collect an enormous amount of information, but the bottleneck is getting it back to earth. It’s like if you have an iPhone 6 and you’re taking all these amazing high-definition videos, but you had to hook it up to your modem line to upload it to your dropbox. But that’s basically what we do in space, and getting rid of that bottleneck is going to be huge because you can send much more capable kinds of instruments up there and not have to worry about how to get all this information back to be analyzed.”
Ever since the International Space Station successfully transmitted the ground-breaking “Hello World” video back in June, the OPALS team has sent over eighteen successful transmissions from ISS to Earth, including Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and HD footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Eventually, Abrahamson says, OPALS technology will most likely be used for deep-space exploration.
“There is a lot of interest right now, a lot of momentum, to putting an operational system on the next deep space robotic spacecraft,” he divulged. “We have a class of projects we do at JPL called the Discovery class, and NASA’s come out and said, you know, we’re interested in looking into the potential of putting on one of these lasercomm systems on the next Discovery class spacecraft.”
Abrahamson told us that a launch for a robotic spacecraft to Mars is estimated for the early 2020s. Until then, we can only dream of the types of video that will arise from the reaches of outer space.
For more information about Matthew Abrahamson and his team’s work with OPALS, check out NASA’s press release here.