An optical communications technology demonstration experiment developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., is paving the way to significantly improve the agency’s data rates for communication with future spacecraft by a factor of 10 to 100 over current technologies.
The nearly 600-pound Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) was sent from JPL on a mounting plate approximately 4 feet by 4.5 feet to Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It arrived at the Space Station Processing Facility on July 11. The experiment will be prepared for delivery to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a SpaceX Dragon commercial resupply capsule on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket early next year.
OPALS will be mounted on the exterior of the space station and communicate with a ground station near Wrightwood, Calif., 77 miles from Los Angeles, during its 90-day mission.
“It’s like aiming a laser pointer continuously for two minutes at a dot the diameter of a human hair from 30 feet away while you’re walking,” explained Bogdan Oaida, OPALS systems engineer at JPL.
As OPALS went through its development cycle its uniqueness kept increasing. Among many firsts, Oaida said OPALS will be the first U.S. laser communication terminal on the station and will be one of the first NASA payloads to fly in the unpressurized section of the Dragon capsule.
“OPALS will lay down one of the first building blocks towards making laser communication the method of choice for future downlink of large amounts of data, whether it is from a satellite orbiting the Earth to its ground station, or from a Mars relay satellite back to Earth,” Oaida said.
Jennifer Wahlberg is the Ground Processing Directorate’s ISS integration lead for utilization payloads like the OPALS experiment at Kennedy.
“The OPALS experiment is an external payload that will be attached to the ISS via the Expedite the Processing of Experiments to Space Station (EXPRESS) Logistics Carrier,” Wahlberg said.
A team of about a dozen NASA and Test Operations Support Contract workers at the SSPF is involved in all phases of OPALS processing, including engineering, logistics, quality and safety support.
During processing, OPALS will be connected to a checkout system called the Payload Rack Checkout Unit (PRCU) and ELC simulator that mimics the interfaces that the payload will be connected to on the station.
“While connected to the PRCU/ELC simulator, the fully assembled OPALS payload will complete an end-to-end interface verification test that includes checks of power quality, commanding and telemetry,” said Robert Kuczajda, an ISS payloads project manager.
His role includes assuring that all Kennedy resources are ready to support OPALS payload processing activities.
“It’s exciting to be involved in the processing of technology demonstration payloads such as OPALS, which make great use of the science capability that only the space station can provide,” Kuczajda said. “We will continue to process many more ISS external payloads in the years ahead.”
Oaida said the benefit to the station will be tremendous, as OPALS is one of the first instruments in a long line of payloads currently in the works to utilize the plentiful resources the orbiting laboratory and platform has to offer.