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The OPALS project at NASA's JPL aims to increase free space communication data rates with the ISS

Posted by Charles Conway on Wed, Aug 10, 2016 @ 03:00 PM

A Boston Micromachines Kilo-DM is being used in an adaptive optics system for the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) project (see figure below) to improve data transmission rates on board the ISS. As the amount of data gathered by instruments on board the station has increased over the years the ability to trasmit the data has not kept pace. Without advancement in free space communications technology some of the data gathered may have to be tossed out or stored for long periods of time before it can be analyzed.


Original figure from Nasa JPL website for OPALS. DM, magnification shapes, and supporting text added by Boston Micromachines.

Adaptive optics is a key part of these systems as without it, the turbulence in the atmosphere would lead to increased noise causing high numbers of bit errors drastically slowing down the data transfer rate. Boston Micromachines deformable mirrors are fast enough to correct for atmospheric aberrations that corrupt the laser beam on its way back to the surface. You can find out more about this space based optical communications technology on NASA JPL's web page for OPALS. Or get a more in depth description of the system by reading the OSA article on OPALS. Our deformable mirror is mentioned in section 3.2.

The project, as well as the Boston Micromachines Deformable Mirror being used, was mentioned recently in an article on the Sentinel Satellite, another space based instrument employing the use of optical data transmission technology. Missions like these show how practical the use of laser transmission systems is to drastically increase the bandwidth in communication channels sending information back to Earth. This technology is being considered for use on the ISS as well as deep space probes and Mars rovers.