NASA downloads data from moon, sets speed record

This week, NASA’s prototype for a new, laser communication system transmitted data between the moon and New Mexico at a download rate of 622 megabits per second.

Carla Cioffi/NASA/AP
The LADEE spacecraft launched to the moon from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia last month. The communications system aboard the craft sent data to the Earth at a record-breaking download speed this week.

It turns out that NASA is still reliant on old-fashioned radio waves to talk to its ever more advanced space equipment. And it’s looking to change that.

This week, NASA’s Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration (LLCD) used a pulsed laser beam to transmit data between the moon and New Mexico at a download rate of 622 megabits per second. That’s a record-breaking download rate between the Earth and its moon, some 239,000 miles apart, and one that NASA says heralds a future of high-speed connection between Earth and space.

A megabit is about the equivalent of 65,000 words in plaintext, or about a third of the length of "Moby Dick." A decent cable broadband connection will deliver about 15 megabits per second. 

NASA’s space technologies are more powerful than ever before, and the agency is asking for more from them, including high-resolution images, 3D movies, and huge datasets. What’s stopping the agency from getting what it wants, though, are the radio waves.

Radio frequency communication, on which NASA has relied throughout its decades in space, is unable to handle the volumes of data that NASA expects to demand from its space telescopes, probes, and rovers in coming years. If the file sizes keep growing, trying to download them via radio waves will be similar to trying to download a full-length HD movie on a dial-up connection. It will be slow. Or it just won’t work.

As NASA puts it, “The Internet is no longer limited by the slow speed of dial-up connections, so why should our satellites be?”

Radio wave technologies are also downright cumbersome, not quite space-age-sleek. Radio wavelengths are long – the size of the transmission beam is about 100 miles wide. So, NASA has had to use huge receiving antennas to talk to its equipment. Laser wavelengths, though, are 10,000 times shorter than radio wavelengths, and NASA will be able to receive laser data with much smaller antennas.

That’s where LLCD comes in. The system was launched last month aboard the Lunar and Atmospheric Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), the satellite now in orbit around the moon. On Wednesday, the system communicated about five times faster between the moon and Earth than has ever been done in the past.

LLCD is a short-duration test, a prototype to NASA’s long-term experiment, Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD). That experiment is set to launch in 2017.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to NASA downloads data from moon, sets speed record
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today