NASA CubeSats to test laser communication, tandem orbit

The first launches on October 8. In early 2016, the initial CubeSat will be joined by its twin.

By Brooks Hays
A new NASA CubeSat will test laser technology after being launched into low Earth orbit on October 8. Photo by NASA
A new NASA CubeSat will test laser technology after being launched into low Earth orbit on October 8. Photo by NASA

LOMPOC, Calif., Oct. 2 (UPI) -- NASA is preparing to launch a CubeSat to test laser communications, a departure from radio wave-based satellite communication technologies.

"Laser communications is very important, not just for NASA but for other U.S. government agencies as well," NASA scientist Andres Martinez said in a press release. "This little mission is a huge achievement for STMD and for small satellites in general."


Martinez, who serves as deputy program manager for Small Spacecraft Technology at NASA's Ames Research Center, and his colleagues expect the satellites laser communication technology to be 100 times faster than traditional data-transfer rates.

CubeSats are quite small, roughly the size of a toaster. Without a robotic arm, the entire satellite will have to be maneuvered to properly aim its laser.

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"There's no auxiliary steering system," added Richard Welle, director of the Microsatellite Systems Department at The Aerospace Corporation. "You just point the whole spacecraft at the target on the ground."

The laser data will be received by a download station perched atop California's Mt. Wilson.

The initial CubeSat is scheduled to launch aboard an Atlas rocket from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 8.


In early 2016, the first CubeSat will be joined by its twin. Engineers at NASA want to attempt to orbit the two small satellite in close proximity. The tandem satellites will communicate with each other and coordinate positioning. Researchers hope their experiment will pave the way for in-orbit monitoring or servicing of other satellites.

"The whole concept of being able to fly small satellites in close proximity and in a controlled fashion is a big deal too," said Martinez.

Small, mass-produced satellites like the CubeSat -- the basic out-of-the-box satellite used by scientists the world over -- are perfect for experimentation.

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"I think the key value of small satellites is the way it encourages very rapid turnover of technology," Welle said. "It's kind of like the electronics revolution where you achieve next generation technology in a few months, instead of years."

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