this little box set a great record

TBIRD does not look like much, but this CubeSat could be the spearhead of an important paradigm shift for NASA.

A very small CubeSat satellite that traveled to space on Wednesday, May 25, will now tackle a much larger target than its size might suggest: NASA hopes it will soon break the laser data transfer rate record from space.

TeraByte InfraRed Delivery, or TBIRD, was dropped into orbit by SpaceX’s Transporter-5 mission last Wednesday. Since then he patiently bit off his time; during a test scheduled for a few days, this little device, which looks like a gold-plated shoe box, will have the difficult task of sending more than 200 Gbps of continuous data for 7 minutes from space thanks to a laser.

This impressive transfer rate would be a NASA record in the optical communications category. It is not the substrate that is usually preferred by engineers. The underlying concepts are generally very well mastered; but data transfer with laser is currently remaining good less popular than good old radio waves.

Light, the future of space communication

But how skilled it is, this technology is slowly starting to show its limits. At a time when NASA is talking about conquering the Moon and Mars, it may very soon need a next-generation data transfer infrastructure to match its new targets.

As new scientific instruments and imaging systems take advantage of the latest technological advances, they will bring large amounts of data back to us every day.”Warns Jason Mitchell, Director of the Advanced Communications and Navigation Technologies division. “

© NASA / Dave Ryan

And that’s exactly the kind of proof of concept she expects from this little TBIRD. He goes “game changer and will be very important for the future of human exploration and science missions”Explains Andreas Doulaveris, an engineer on the team responsible for the machine at NASA’s prestigious Goddard Space Flight Center.

Better than radio waves

And with good reason: In an operational context, the laser has many advantages over radio. However, both are based on the same support, namely electromagnetic waves; but the infrared radiation that makes up this laser has a much shorter wavelength than radio waves.

It makes a huge difference. For in practice, to transmit information, scientists introduce subtle modifications to the pattern of the wave. Very vulgar, if the wavelength is shorter, it means that there are also more devices capable of carrying information. In practice, this means that this information will not be transmitted faster; however, it will be possible to send multiple data in a single transfer.

The earth receiver. © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

And the icing on the cake is that space laser communication equipment is easy to integrate. They are significantly lighter and less bulky than their radio equivalents at similar power. Two points that are, of course, very important in space, where engineers track down the slightest excess grams or inches without breathing space.

TBIRD will be tested over a period of 6 months; until then, NASA hopes this tiny little golden box will allow it to take a giant leap forward. If these tests are crucial, this may well mark the beginning of a real technological transition. These advances in space communication are discrete and less published than those relating to, for example, rockets; but they are just as fundamental to the space conquest of the future. Not bad for a machine the size of a big box of grain!

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