Soon the International Space Station will receive a laser light terminal.
Beams of invisible infrared light will soar through the atmosphere, capable of communicating images and video of astronauts and space station experiments, courtesy of NASA’s brand new laser terminal called ILLUMA-T (pronounced ” ill-LOO-mah-TEA”) .
In May, ILLUMA-T (formerly the “Low Earth Orbit Integrated Laser Communication Relay Demonstration User Modem and Amplifier”) arrived at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There, the payload is undergoing final assembly and testing to ensure it can withstand the rigors of a rocket launch and the extreme environment of space.
Prior to its arrival at Goddard, the ILLUMA-T payload was at Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where it was designed and partially built for NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) office. NASA has partnered with MIT Lincoln Laboratory on many missions, including the recent TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) payload.
Once installed on the space station, ILLUMA-T will use laser communications to relay data to and from Earth via NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). Lasers provide missions with higher data rates than traditional radio waves. This means more scientific and exploration data can be sent to Earth in a single transmission. The move from radio frequency to laser communications is similar to the move from dial-up to high-speed Internet.
Since its completion in 1998, the space station has relied on NASA tracking and data relay satellites to provide radio frequency communications and send data to and from Earth. After its initial experimentation phase with the LCRD, ILLUMA-T could be used to dramatically increase data to and from the space station.
The ILLUMA-T payload is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Partners include the International Space Station Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory. ILLUMA-T is funded by the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program at NASA Headquarters in Washington.