Minimize STPSat-6 / LCRD

STPSat-6 / LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) mission on STP-3

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LCRD is a NASA/GSFC-led technology demonstration mission of a spaceborne optical communications system. The project promises to dramatically increase data rates, but achieving these speeds will be technically challenging — particularly when transmitting and collecting these tight, data-packed laser beams and then compensating for distortions that occur when the light travels through a turbulent or cloudy atmosphere. 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) 6)

The LCRD project is NASA’s pathfinder mission towards an optical relay capability. LCRD is a Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) technology demonstration mission that is co-funded by NASA’s SCaN (Space Communications and Navigation) program. The LCRD architecture and experiment plan are designed to address the critical questions remaining to move the proven technology to operational readiness. LCRD will address questions beyond whether or not the technology will work; it will address questions about how the technology can be optimally implemented and applied. 7) 8)

The NASA TDRS Tracking and Data Relay Satellite) System is comprised of a constellation of spacecraft in GEO (Geostationary Orbit) and associated ground stations and operation centers. There are currently three generations of TDRS on orbit, with the most recent launch of TDRS-L in January 2014. The TDRS are distributed around the equator to provide global coverage to satellites and users in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) or below. The global coverage allows for complete realtime communications with users such as the ISS (International Space Station), as well as communications on demand for users such as the Swift Gamma Ray Burst Mission. NASA has been evaluating the expected life of the current fleet and future mission support requirements and is currently targeting a next generation of relay capability on orbit in the 2025 timeframe.

LCRD is a joint project between NASA/GSFC, NASA/JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and MIT/LL (Massachusetts Institute of Technology / Lincoln Laboratory). The mission goal is to provide two years of continuous high data rate optical communications in an operational environment from GEO, demonstrating how optical communications can meet NASA’s growing need for higher data rates, or for the same data rate provided by a comparable RF system, how it enables lower power, lower mass communications systems on user spacecraft. In addition, LCRD’s architecture will allow it to serve as a testbed in space for the development of additional symbol coding, link and network layer protocols, etc.

NASA has been developing optical communications for both Near Earth and Deep Space applications. Optical communications (or laser communication or “lasercom”) is a revolutionary technology that enables NASA to undertake more complex missions in the future that require transmitting more data and/or decreasing the communication system’s mass, size, and power burden on the spacecraft: 9) 10) 11)

• For approximately the same mass, power, and volume, an optical communications system will provide significantly higher data rates or data volume than a comparable radio frequency system

• For the same data rate (e.g. 1 Gbit/s of output), an optical communications system will require less mass, power, and volume than a comparable radio frequency system.

There exist some differences between the technological approaches to optical communications specifically designed for Near Earth missions versus Deep Space missions. Due to the vastly differing ranges and data rates for Near Earth versus Deep Space missions, some of the technologies applicable to each domain differ in profound ways; however, there are also many technologies which are similar to both! Coordination of system development for these two domains maximizes NASA’s return on investment. The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, to launch in 2019, is NASA’s flagship optical communications technology demonstration for Near Earth applications. Its purpose is to prove the technology is ready for the Next Generation TDRS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellites) and that it is ready to provide mission critical communications for users.


Figure 1: Artist's rendition of the hosted LCRD payload on the commercial spacecraft in GEO (image credit: NASA)

The LCRD demonstration will have two hosted optical communications terminals in space on a single commercial communications satellite in geostationary orbit and two optical communications terminals in Southern California and Hawaii to allow the mission to demonstrate for Near Earth applications.

The LCRD demonstration involves a hosted payload on a commercial communications satellite developed by SSL (Space Systems/Loral), of Palo Alto, CA, and two specially equipped ground stations in California and Hawaii. The demonstration is expected to launch in late 2016 and operate two to three years.

The LCRD mission requirements call for:

• Enable reliable, capable, and cost effective optical communications technologies for near Earth applications and provide the next steps required toward optical communications for deep space missions.

• High rate bi-directional communications between Earth and GEO

• Real-time optical relay from Ground Station 1 through the GEO flight payload to Ground Station 2

• PPM (Pulse Position Modulations) suitable for power limited users, such as small Near Earth missions

• DPSK (Differential Phase Shift Keying) modulations suitable for Near Earth high data rate communications

• Various mission scenarios through spacecraft simulations at the Earth ground station

• Coding, link layer, and network layer protocols over optical links over an orbiting testbed.

At the same time that it is developing LCRD, NASA is also working on a Next Generation LEO (Low Earth Orbit) User Terminal that is compatible with LCRD. Thus, the LCRD flight payload has a requirement to be able to support high rate bi-directional communications between LEO and GEO as well as between Earth and GEO. The current plan is to launch the Next Generation LEO User Terminal to the ISS (International Space Station) to demonstrate interoperability with LCRD and to demonstrate LEO-to-GEO-to-Earth relay operations.

The LCRD project isn't NASA’s first foray into laser (i.e., optical) communications. NASA hired the MIT-Lincoln Laboratory to develop a laser communications payload for LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer), which was launched on Sept. 7, 2013. The main goal of LADEE is proving fundamental concepts of laser-based communications via the LLCD (Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration) device and transferring data at a rate of 622 Mbit/s, which is about five times the current state-of-the-art from lunar distances.

However, the LADEE payload is equipped with only one modem, the lower-speed model is best suited for deep-space communications. In addition, LADEE was a short-duration mission. The LLCD experiment is expected to operate for only 16 days of the LADEE mission, not enough time to demonstrate a fully operational network. However, LLCD will ably demonstrate:

• Pulse Position Modulation

• Photon counting on the downlink

• Inertial stabilization

• High-efficiency transmission and reception of PPM (Pulse Position Modulation)

• Very low size, weight, and power space terminal

• Integrating an optical communications terminal to a spacecraft

• Link operation under some conditions (limited due to the very limited operating time)

• Scalable array ground receiver.

Prior to LADEE, NASA had begun developing the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter, but canceled the project in 2005 because of budget constraints. Had it launched in 2009, it would have exhibited high-speed data rates between Earth and several Mars landers and orbiters for as long as 10 years.

Several space agencies are currently working on spaceborne optical communications. The EDRS (European Data Relay Satellite System) will provide intersatellite optical links at data rates up to 1.8 Gbit/s. EDRS is currently planned to consist of two satellites; one is a dedicated ESA (European Space Agency) spacecraft while the other is a commercial satellite carrying a EDRS hosted payload. The standard mode of operation calls for LEO spacecraft to communicate with the relay using optical signals; the relay then transmits the information to Earth via Ka-band RF signals.

NASA has successfully completed the LLCD (Lunar Laser Communication Demonstration) from lunar orbit in late 2013 as part of of a demonstration experiment on the LADEE mission (the LADEE mission ended on April 17, 2014). The LLCD system consists of a space terminal, the LLST (Lunar Lasercom Space Terminal) on LADEE, and a primary ground terminal, the LLGT (Lunar Lasercom Ground Terminal), at White Sands, NM for the mission. Two alternate ground terminals were also tested, namely the LLOT (Lunar Lasercom OCTL Terminal) at JPL’s Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory in Table Mountain, CA, and the LLOGS (Lunar Lasercom Optical Ground System), residing at ESA’s OGS on Tenerife, the Canary Islands.

The operation of the space and ground terminals were all coordinated from the LLOC (Lunar Lasercom Operations Center) which resided at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, MA. The entire LLCD program was overseen by NASA/GSFC , and the LADEE spacecraft was designed, built, and operated by the NASA(ARC ( Ames Research Center). LLCD had 15 Lunar Days of operations between mid-October and mid-November 2013. During those days, LLCD had a total of 101 scheduled passes – 56 passes with LLGT, 22 with LLOT, 15 with the LLOGS, and 8 passes lost because no available terminal was cloud-free. The project met or exceeded the mission goals.

The LLCD pointing, acquisition, and tracking (PAT) systems and protocols allowed both the uplink and downlink to lock and begin data communications within seconds. After configuration refinements over the first few passes, the links would lock up every pass with error-free performance at uplink rates up to 20 Mbit/s and downlink rates up to 311 Mbit/s with the LLGT ground station. Downlinks at 622 Mbit/s also met performance requirements, but included a codeword error rate floor of about one error per minute due to a LLGT hardware limitation found during ground testing.

LLCD and the progress towards EDRS have moved optical communications closer to readiness for an optical relay operational geosynchronous relay system, but challenges remain that are likely beyond what would be acceptable for the commitment to deploy the new capability today. The challenges that remain mainly focus on providing operational services that include an optical space-to-ground link.

Though the technology demonstrations and progress on operational intersatellite links greatly increase the confidence in the success of a future TDRS optical capability, many challenges remain for the specification, development, and operations of a future system. The LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) mission will build upon the recent successes to serve as a pathfinder for the next generation TDRS network.

Table 1: Some background on NASA involvement in optical communications

Unfortunately, LLCD does not go far enough. To make optical communications useful to future projects, long mission life space terminals must be developed and proven. Operational concepts for reliable, high-rate data delivery in the face of terrestrial weather variations and real NASA mission constraints needs to be developed and demonstrated. To increase the availability of an optical communications link and to handle cloud covering a ground terminal, there needs to be a demonstration of handovers among multiple ground sites. For Near Earth applications, a demonstration needs to show the relaying of an optical communications signal in space. There also needs to be a demonstration of the modulation and coding suitable for very high rate links.

NASA’s new LCRD optical communications project will answer the remaining questions for Near Earth applications. LCRD’s flight payload will have two optical communications terminals in space and two optical communications terminals on Earth to allow the mission to demonstrate:

• High rate bi-directional communications between Earth and GEO (Geostationary Earth Orbit)

• Real-time optical relay from GS-1 (Ground Station-1) on Earth through the GEO flight payload to GS-2 (Ground Station-2) on Earth

• Pulse Position Modulations suitable for deep space communications or other power limited users, such as small Near Earth missions

• DPSK (Differential Phase Shift Keying) modulations suitable for Near Earth high data rate communications

• Demonstration of various mission scenarios through spacecraft simulations at the Earth ground station

• Performance testing and demonstrations of coding, link layer, and network layer protocols over optical links over an orbiting testbed.

The LCRD architecture is illustrated in Figure 2. The LCRD flight payload, consisting of two OSTs (Optical Space Terminals) and associated electronics, will be hosted onboard a SSL-built communications satellite. The satellite operator will have a HMOC (Host Mission Operations Center) through which payload commands and telemetry will be routed.

LCRD will employ simulators to demonstrate forward and return relay links and direct uplink/downlink. The flexibility and scalability of the LCRD architecture enables support to terrestrial, air-borne, and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) users. LCRD will also demonstrate optical communications networking capabilities including the use of an LMOC (LCRD Mission Operations Center), multiple OGSs (Optical Ground Stations), OGS handovers, degraded operations, user service recovery from link interruption due to clouds, operating through orbital events and spacecraft maneuvers, and coordinated network flight and ground segment operations.

LCRD will fly two optical modules, as opposed to the single optical module on LLCD. The CE (Controller Electronics) of each optical space terminal will be a commercially procured update of the LLCD CE. There will be a SSU (Space Switching Unit) to connect the two optical links together for realtime relay. The LLCD optical module design has been modified for GEO applications and to make the system more robust. The optical module components have been transferred to Industry and are being procured and integrated by NASA/GSFC. There will also be two flight modems. The LCRD flight payload system diagram is seen in Figure 3.


Figure 2: LCRD design reference mission (image credit: NASA)


Figure 3: Block diagram of the LCRD flight payload (image credit: NASA)

The LCRD flight modems are based on a multi-rate modem designed by MIT/LL. This is a different design than the LLCD modem. The LCRD modems will be capable of the PPM (Pulse Position Modulation) demonstrated on LLCD, as well as DPSK (Differential Phase Shift Keying) modulation. Though PPM allows for communications in photon-starved scenarios, such as deep space links, DPSK will allow for extremely high data rates (10’s of Gbit/s). The data rates for all links will be PPM up to 311 Mbit/s and DPSK up to 1.244 Gbit/s.

Development status of the LCRD project

• October 27, 2021: Two optical ground stations, including one managed by JPL, will support NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration mission when it launches this fall. 12)

- Since the dawn of space exploration, NASA missions have primarily relied on radio frequency communications for this transfer of information. But this fall, NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will launch and showcase laser communications – a revolutionary way of communicating data from space to the ground.

- LCRD’s ground stations, known as Optical Ground Station (OGS) -1 and -2, are located on Table Mountain, California, and Haleakalā, Hawaii. These remote, high-altitude locations were chosen for their clear weather conditions. While laser communications can provide increased data transfer rates, atmospheric disturbances – such as clouds and turbulence – can disrupt laser signals as they enter Earth’s atmosphere.

- “The way the local meteorology works, there is minimal dust and less atmospheric turbulence at the top of the mountain, which is great for laser communications,” said Ron Miller from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and former development lead for OGS-2 in Hawaii. “It’s about 10,000 feet up, so you’re above a lot of the atmosphere and weather that occurs below the summit. It’s very common to have a nice sunny day at the top and be cloudy around the midpoint of the mountain.”

Figure 4: The LCRD mission will communicate with two ground stations – on Table Mountain, California, and Haleakalā, Hawaii – to demonstrate optical communications between space and Earth (video credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

- NASA communications engineers selected these sites because their weather patterns typically complement each other. When OGS-1 in California is cloudy, OGS-2 in Hawaii tends to be clear – and vice versa. To monitor cloud coverage and determine which station is to be used, commercial partner Northrop Grumman provided an atmospheric monitoring station that observes weather conditions at Haleakalā. This monitoring station runs nearly autonomously 24 hours a day, seven days a week. OGS-1 has similar weather monitoring capabilities at Table Mountain.

- Despite the usually clear weather at these locations, NASA engineers must still work to reduce the effects of atmospheric turbulence on the data received by OGS-1 and OGS-2. To do this, both stations leverage the power of adaptive optics.

- “An adaptive optics system uses a sensor to measure the distortion to the electromagnetic signal that’s coming down from the spacecraft,” said Tom Roberts, the manager of OGS-1 development and operations at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “If we can measure that distortion, then we can send it through a deformable mirror that changes its shape to take out those aberrations that the atmosphere induces. That allows us to have a nice, pristine signal.”

- While OGS-2 was developed specifically for the LCRD mission, OGS-1 is based at JPL’s Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory, which prior to LCRD was used for previous laser communications demonstrations. To get OGS-1 ready for LCRD support, engineers had to upgrade the ground station, modifying the system to bring it up to a higher standard. One such upgrade involved replacing the mirrors to have better reflectivity and higher laser thresholds so that the telescope can receive and send laser signals to and from LCRD.

- Prior to mission support, LCRD will spend about two years conducting tests and experiments. During this time, OGS-1 and OGS-2 will act as simulated users, sending data from one station to LCRD then down to the next. These tests will allow the aerospace community to learn from LCRD and further refine the technology for future implementation of laser communications systems.

- After the experimental phase, LCRD will support in-space missions. Missions, like a terminal on the International Space Station, will send data to LCRD, which will then beam it to OGS-1 or OGS-2.

• May 12, 2021: Launching this year, NASA's LCRD will showcase the dynamic powers of laser communications technologies. With NASA’s ever-increasing human and robotic presence in space, missions can benefit from a new way of “talking” with Earth. 13)

- Since the beginning of spaceflight in the 1950s, NASA missions have leveraged radio frequency communications to send data to and from space. Laser communications, also known as optical communications, will further empower missions with unprecedented data capabilities.


Figure 5: Graphic representation of the difference in data rates between radio and laser communications (image credit: NASA)

Laser Communications Relay Demonstration

- Located in geosynchronous orbit, about 22,000 miles above Earth, LCRD will be able to support missions in the near-Earth region. LCRD will spend its first two years testing laser communications capabilities with numerous experiments to refine laser technologies further, increasing our knowledge about potential future applications.

- LCRD’s initial experiment phase will leverage the mission’s ground stations in California and Hawaii, Optical Ground Station 1 and 2, as simulated users. This will allow NASA to evaluate atmospheric disturbances on lasers and practice switching support from one user to the next. After the experiment phase, LCRD will transition to supporting space missions, sending and receiving data to and from satellites over infrared lasers to demonstrate the benefits of a laser communications relay system.

- The first in-space user of LCRD will be NASA’s ILLUMA-T (Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal , which is set to launch to the International Space Station in 2022. The terminal will receive high-quality science data from experiments and instruments onboard the space station and then transfer this data to LCRD at 1.2 Gbit/s. LCRD will then transmit it to ground stations at the same rate.

- LCRD and ILLUMA-T follow the groundbreaking 2013 Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, which downlinked data over a laser signal at 622 megabits-per-second, proving the capabilities of laser systems at the Moon. NASA has many other laser communications missions currently in different stages of development. Each of these missions will increase our knowledge about the benefits and challenges of laser communications and further standardize the technology.

- LCRD is slated to launch as a payload on a Department of Defense spacecraft on June 23, 2021.

• On July 16, 2020, the LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) payload was installed and integrated on the U.S. Department of Defense Space Test Program Satellite 6 (STPSat-6) in preparation for a 2021 launch. As an experimental payload, LCRD will demonstrate the robust capabilities of laser communications, which can provide significant benefits to missions, including bandwidth increases of 10 to 100 times more than radio frequency systems. 14)


Figure 6: Northrop Grumman technicians in front of the LCRD payload fully installed and integrated on the Space Test Program Satellite (STPSat-6), image credits: NGSS (Northrop Grumman Space Systems)

- Prior to spacecraft integration, the LCRD payload went through several tests and blanket installations at Northrop Grumman’s integration and test facility in Sterling, Virginia. While LCRD underwent testing, Northrop Grumman technicians also prepared the spacecraft for LCRD’s integration. Now that the two components have been fully integrated, they will undergo environmental testing and end-to-end compatibility testing to ensure the spacecraft and payload can properly communicate with one another.

- LCRD will be NASA’s first two-way optical relay, sending and receiving data from missions in space to mission control on Earth. LCRD is paving the way for future optical communications missions, which could use LCRD to relay their data to the ground. In 2022, the Integrated LCRD Low-Earth Orbit User Modem and Amplifier Terminal (ILLUMA-T), hosted on the International Space Station, will be the first LCRD demonstration from low-Earth orbit.

- LCRD was built by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, before being shipped to the Northrop Grumman facility in January 2020. LCRD is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, and managed by NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions and the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program office.

• On January 22, 2020, the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) flight payload was delivered to Northrop Grumman’s facility in Sterling, Virginia. There the payload will be integrated onto the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program Satellite 6 (STPSat-6) and prepared for launch. LCRD will be NASA’s first end-to-end optical relay, sending and receiving data from missions in space to mission control on Earth. In the first image, you can see the LCRD space switching unit, which will enable digital communications from space to ground. This evolution to more internet-like communications will reduce the amount of processing required before data can be sent to science and mission operations centers. 15)


Figure 7: LCRD will demonstrate the robust capabilities of optical communications. The metallic surface pictured in the second image reflects incoming optical communications signals, relaying them to space or ground telescopes (image credit: NASA)

• December 15, 2017: The LCRD mission has begun integration and testing at NASA/GSFC. “There are three phases to integration and testing leading up to launch,” said Glenn Jackson, LCRD payload project manager. “We’re on track to finish the first phase, payload integration, by the end of December. The next phase is to test the entire payload in a flight environment including electromagnetic, acoustic and thermal vacuum testing.” 16)

• February 13, 2017: Orbital ATK announced it has been awarded a contract by the U.S. Air Force Space and Missiles Systems Center to provide payload integration and support services for Space Test Program Satellite 6 (STPSat-6). The multipurpose satellite will operationally demonstrate advanced communication capabilities, collect space weather data and support nuclear detonation detection in the Earth s atmosphere or in near space. STPSat-6 is the primary payload on the STP-3 mission which is set to launch no earlier than June 2019. 17)

- The multiple payloads on board STPSat-6 include the SABRS-3 (Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System-3), NASA s LCRD (Laser Communication Relay Demonstration), and seven experiments from the DOD Space Experiments Review Board. Orbital ATK' s heritage bus and avionics product line is designed to support multiple payloads and can be adapted to support the customer s desired mission life.

• February 2016: All elements of the Space and Ground segments are either complete or at the final stages of integration. LCRD ground modems successfully met required bit error rate performance. The LCRD development is on schedule for the planned launch in 2019 (Ref. 10).

• On April 1, 2014, NASA awarded a digital processor assembly contract for the LCRD flight payload. 18)

• In early Dec. 2013, the LCRD mission passed a PDR (Preliminary Design Review). 19)

• In Sept. 2012, the LCRD mission has successfully completed a Mission Concept Review, a major evaluation milestone of the engineering plan to execute the build and launch of a space communications laser system. 20)


The LCRD flight payload will fly on the STPSat-6 (Space Test Program Satellite-6). The STP satellites are a series of spacecraft developed under a Department of Defense (DoD) program to field space capabilities quickly in response to emerging national needs. STPSat-6, which is managed by the Space Test Program office at Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is scheduled to launch in summer 2019. The Space Test Program office is in the Advanced Systems and Development Directorate within the Space and Missile Systems Center of the U.S. Air Force. While the satellite is named STPSat-6, the entire mission is referred to as STP-3 (Space Test Program-3). 21)

The STPSat-6 spacecraft bus is being provided by Orbital ATK in Dulles, Virginia, and is based on a partially assembled satellite in storage; it was originally based on Orbital ATK's high-end modular A-500 bus. The satellite will be directly inserted into an orbit slightly above geostationary. STPSat-6 will carry several experiments into orbit in addition to the LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) experiment. The primary payload is the SABRS-3 (Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System- 3) from NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration), which provides nuclear detonation detection and space environment data, and is designed to complement nuclear detonation detectors currently in orbit. The satellite will also host seven Department of Defense Space Experiments Review Board payloads from the Space Test Program office.

High Data Rate RF: When LCRD was originally conceived and approved, the project contained only two optical space terminals and two optical ground stations. This was considered to be the minimum configuration that would allow NASA to experiment and learn about a geosynchronous-Earth orbit (GEO)-based optical communications relay service. With two ground stations, NASA could simulate a handover from one ground station to another; in a different configuration, one ground station could act as the user and the other could act as the “receiving” ground station (i.e. as the optical trunkline from the relay satellite, (Ref. 9).

This minimum configuration was never considered ideal, and it was recognized that a real operational demonstration required a user terminal in space communicating through LCRD to the ground. Furthermore, the minimum architecture would suffer from cloud coverage at either optical ground station. A benefit of an optical-to-optical relay is that it allows the trunkline to carry the same bandwidth as the link between the relay and the user. An actual optical relay would need to contend with inevitable cloud cover over one or both ground stations. The susceptibility to cloud cover, scintillation, scattering and other atmospheric effects are known challenges associated with optical communications. If a cloud were present, the optical trunkline could either wait for clouds to pass or switch to a different ground station that has a cloud-free line of sight; however, both of these options create a link outage.


Figure 8: The LCRD mission architecture (image credit: NASA)

A high data rate RF trunkline has been added to the LCRD architecture to provide more capability and alleviate concerns regarding lack of optical ground station availability due to cloud cover. NASA expects that future operational GEO relay satellites will have both optical and RF services. Optical communications would be used for extremely high data transfer where some latency might be acceptable; RF would provide high availability of services, but lower data transfer. For example, science instrument files, housekeeping files, software uploads and more can often be delayed as long as they are completely delivered. But most missions also have requirements for real-time or very low-latency delivery, such as commanding, telemetry, science alerts, voice, video, etc. In this way, the capabilities complement each other, enabling both high-volume data delivery and reliable coverage.

The STPSat-6 spacecraft is being augmented with a Ka-band system that consists of two SDRs (Software Defined Radios). The system supports:

- Transmit up to 622 Mbit/s

- Receive up to 64 Mbit/s

- SpaceWire command, control, and telemetry to the spacecraft

- SpaceWire command, control, and telemetry to the spacecraft

- Ability to be reconfigured on orbit.

Each SDR on the spacecraft operates independently; one supports RHCP (Right Hand Circular Polarization) while the other supports LHCP (Left Hand Circular Polarization). The system is equipped to receive and transmit in single or dual polarization modes at any time during the mission. The addition of high data rate RF makes the LCRD demonstration much more valuable to NASA in developing and experimenting with future concepts of operations.


Figure 9: Illustration of NASA's LCRD payload on the STPSat-6 spacecraft communicating with the International Space Station over laser links (image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Launch Preparations


Figure 10: The Space Test Program-3 (STP-3) mission for the U.S. Space Force’s (USSF) Space Systems Command (SSC) is mounted atop its ride to space, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, in preparation for launch. STP-3 will host NASA’s Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD). LCRD will send and receive data over infrared lasers at approximately 1.2 Gbit/s from GEO to Earth and seeks to make operational laser communications a reality (photo credit: United Launch Alliance)

NASA's LCRD moved one step closer to launch on Monday, Nov. 22, after a team of engineers fastened the payload fairing containing its host satellite to a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 551 rocket. Launch is now targeted for Dec. 5, 2021, due to inclement weather during launch vehicle processing. 22)

Teams at Astrotech Space Operations Payload Processing Facility in Titusville, Florida, spent several weeks preparing the satellite before moving it to the United Launch Alliance’s Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) for the lift and mate operations.

Inside the VIF, a team of engineers fastened the payload fairing, which houses the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Space Test Program Satellite-6 (STPSat-6) spacecraft. LCRD is hosted on STPSat-6. The mission is scheduled to launch on Dec. 5 from Launch Complex 41 on CCSFS, with a two-hour launch window beginning at 4:04 a.m. EST.

The fully stacked rocket and payload stands 196 feet tall and is anticipated to roll out on a mobile launch platform from the VIF to the launch pad on Dec. 3. The rocket’s Centaur second stage and spacecraft will remain attached until 4 minutes, 33 seconds after launch, with deployment of STPSat-6 scheduled about 6 hours, 30 minutes after launch.

NASA’s LCRD payload, hosted on STPSat-6, is about the size of a king-sized mattress and seeks to make operational laser communications a reality. As space missions generate and collect more data, higher bandwidth communications technologies are needed to bring data home, and laser communications systems offer higher bandwidth in a smaller package that uses less power. LCRD will send and receive data over infrared lasers at approximately 1.2 Gbit/s from GEO to Earth.

LCRD is led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Partners include NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California and the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. LCRD is funded through NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions program, part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, and the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program at NASA Headquarters.

Launch: A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 551 rocket launched the Space Test Program-3 (STP-3) mission for the U.S. Space Force’s (USSF) Space Systems Command (SSC) on December 7 2021 at 5:19 a.m. (10:19 UTC) from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. 23)

The primary spacecraft is STPSat-6. STPSat-6 is a multipurpose spacecraft carrying nine payloads and experiments. Both spacecraft were built by Northrop Grumman. The instrument suite includes the Space Atmospheric Burst Recording System-3 (SABRS-3), an operational mission from the National Nuclear Security Administration, NASA’s LCRD (Laser Communication Relay Demonstration) payload to test technologies for the next generation of data relay satellites, and seven Defense Department Space Experiments Review Board space weather and situational awareness payloads. Among them the UVSC (Ultraviolet Spectro-Coronagraph) Pathfinder. 24)

The rideshare spacecraft is the LDPE-1 (Long Duration Propulsive Evolved-1) Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) — a small-satellite adapter ring designed to deploy military experiments. On this mission it hosted six U.S. Space Force experiments focused on space weather and situational awareness. — Among them is Ascent, a 12U CubeSat of AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory) at Kirtland AFB, in partnership with the Space Security and Defense Program. “The Ascent mission will evaluate the performance of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology in the near-geosynchronous space environment,” said Ascent mission manager Capt. Sunderlin Jackson. “COTS technology has dramatically driven down the cost and schedule required for LEO flight experiments. We hope to extend those benefits to the GEO space environment, where the DoD has many important missions.”

The CubeSat is one of several payloads hosted on the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA-1 (LDPE-1), a cost-effective ”freight train” to space for experiments and prototypes in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO). The Ascent CubeSat will be deployed from its host, LDPE-1, in January 2022 to begin its mission.

STP-3 STP-3 is a co-manifested mission that matures technology and reduces future space program risk for the Department of the Air Force and the U.S. Space Force by advancing warfighting capabilities in the areas of nuclear detonation detection, space domain awareness (SDA), weather, and communication. Both spacecraft will be delivered to geosynchronous orbit.

The STP-3 mission debuts three engineering features designed to reduce risk and accumulate flight experience before use on the Vulcan Centaur, these include Out-of-Autoclave (OoA) payload fairings, an in-flight power system and GPS enhanced navigation. 25)

The OoA payload fairing was developed with a new manufacturing method, an alternative process to cure carbon fiber composites, which allows for a more efficient production process, lower cost and lower system mass while maintaining the same level of reliability and quality.

The Atlas V is also equipped with a new In-Flight Power System (IFPS). This system supplies power to the satellites’ batteries during the rocket’s long duration ascent, a mission more than seven hours. The IFPS will ensure the spacecraft have fully charged batteries when deployed into geosynchronous orbit.

GPS Enhanced Navigation is an additional first flight item that utilizes existing flight computer hardware to provide GPS signals that improve the Centaur‘s navigation system performance, allowing the Centaur to achieve even more accurate orbits.


Figure 11: A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket launched the Space Test Program-3 (STP-3) mission for the U.S. Space Force 7 December 2021, at 5:19 a.m. EST (image credit: ULA webcast)

Orbit: Geostationary orbit at an altitude of ~35,786 km with direct insertion into GEO. -The Atlas V 551 will fly with five solid rocket boosters and launch two satellites directly to geosynchronous orbit.


Figure 12: The flight profile of the STP-3 mission (image credit: ULA, Ref. NO TAG#

Sensor complement (LCRD, UVSC Pathfinder, etc. )

LCRD (Laser Communications Relay Demonstration) payload

The LCRD flight payload will be flown on a GEO spacecraft and consists of:

• Two optical communications modules (heads)

• Two optical module controllers

• Two DPSK (Differential Phase Shift Keying) modems that can also support low data rate PPM (Pulse Position Modulation)

• A space switching unit to interconnect the two optical modules and to interface to the host spacecraft.

The LCRD architecture will allow the mission to: 26)

• Demonstrate high rate 24/7 optical communications operations over a 2 year period from GEO to Earth (ground stations)

• Demonstrate real-time optical relay from one Ground Station through the GEO flight payload to the second ground station

• Demonstrate both a Near Earth (DPSK) and a Deep Space (PPM) compatible modulation and coding

• Demonstrate 1.244 Gbit/s (2.880 Gbit/s uncoded) uplink and downlink using DPSK (Differential Phase Shift Keying) modulation

• Demonstrate 311 Mbit/s uplink and downlink using PPM (Pulse Position Modulation)

• Demonstrate the Next Generation TDRS compatible optical terminal capable of supporting both direct to Earth and GEO to LEO (ISS Terminal) communications

• Demonstrate operational concepts for reliable, high-rate data delivery in face of terrestrial weather variations typically encountered by real NASA missions

• Demonstrate control of handover among ground sites

• Support performance testing and demonstrations of coding and link layer protocols over optical links via an orbiting testbed.

Optical module:

Each optical module, shown in Figure 2, is a 10 cm reflective telescope that produces a ~15 microradian downlink beam. It also houses a spatial acquisition detector which is a simple quadrant detector, with a field of view of approximately 2 microradians. It is used both for detection of a scanned uplink signal, and as a tracking sensor for initial pull-in of the signal. The telescope is mounted to a two-axis gimbal via a MIRU (Magnetohydrodynamic Inertial Reference Unit). Angle-rate sensors in the MIRU detect angular disturbances which are then rejected using voice-coil actuators for inertial stabilization of the telescope. Optical fibers couple the optical module to the modems where transmitted optical waveforms are processed. Control for each optical module and its corresponding modems are provided by a controller. Each optical module is held and protected during launch with a cover and one-time launch latch.


Figure 13: Illustration of the optical module 1 (image credit: NASA)

Flight modem: LCRD’s primary modulation format is DPSK (Differential Phase Shift Keying) which has superior noise tolerance, it can be used at extremely high data rates, and supports communications when the Sun is in the field of view. LCRD leverages a MIT/LL previously designed DPSK modem. It can both transmit and receive data at an (uncoded) rate from 72 Mbit/s to 2.88 Gbit/s. The modem employs identical signaling for both the uplink and downlink directions. The DPSK transmitter generates a sequence of pulses at a 2.88 GHz clock rate. A bit is encoded in the phase difference between consecutive pulses. As demodulation is accomplished with a Mach-Zehnder optical interferometer, the clock rate remains fixed. The DPSK transmitter utilizes a MOPA architecture. The EDFA amplifies the optical signal to a 0.5 W average power level. Data rates below the maximum are accomplished via “burst-mode” operation, where the transmitter sends pulses only a fraction of the time, sending no optical power the remainder of the time. Since the EDFA is average power limited, the peak power during the bursts is increased; thus the rate reduction is accomplished in a power efficient manner.

The DPSK receiver has an optical pre-amplifier stage and an optical filter, at which point the light is split between a clock recovery unit and the communications receiver. The receiver uses a delay-line interferometer followed by balanced photodetectors to compare the phases of consecutive pulses, making a hard decision on each channel bit. While coding and interleaving will be applied in the ground terminal to mitigate noise and atmospheric fading, the DPSK flight receiver does not decode nor de-interleave. The modems instead support a relay architecture where uplink and downlink errors are corrected together in a decoder located at the destination ground station.

In addition to DPSK, each flight modem will also support PPM (Pulse Position Modulation). The transmitter modulates the signal with a sequence of 16-ary PPM symbols (a signal pulse is placed in exactly one of each 16 temporal slots). The maximum PPM data rate is 311 Mbit/s. The transmitter utilizes the same 2.88 GHz clock rate. When operating in PPM mode, the receive modem utilizes the same optical pre-amplification and optical filter as is used in DPSK. The optical signal is converted to an electrical signal by means of a photodetector. The electrical signal in each slot is compared to a threshold (which can be varied to account for atmospheric turbulence) in a simple, yet sensitive PPM receiver implementation. This method leverages previous work performed by MIT Lincoln Laboratory.


Figure 14: Photo of the flight modem 1 (image credit: NASA)

Space Switching Unit: To be an optical relay demonstration, LCRD will create a relay connection between two optical ground stations or between a satellite in LEO and the ground. The Space Switching Unit interconnects the two flight optical terminals and the spacecraft’s high rate RF system. In addition to realtime relay operations, the electronics will allow scenarios where one link uses DPSK signaling and the other PPM. A known challenge with optical communication through the atmosphere is the susceptibility to cloud cover. Thus the Space Switching Unit can use the high rate RF system in addition to an optical downlink when necessary. To support DTN (Delay Tolerant Networking) over the DPSK optical links, the Space Switching Unit will implement any required decoding and de-interleaving so the payload can process and route the data (at a rate less than the maximum DPSK throughput). The link operations will be configurable to allow support for a variety of scenarios.

SHIM (Secure Host Interface Module): The SHIM isolates the LCRD flight payload, in an Information Assurance (IA) point of view, from the spacecraft. The addition of IA technology was a recent enhancement to LCRD and its purpose is to prevent unauthorized access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification, inspection, recording, or the destruction of information within the LCRD flight payload. IA gets the right information to the right people at the right time while protecting that information from eavesdropping or corruption. NASA’s space communication links must be available when needed (e.g. be protected from a denial of service attack) and reliably transmit data (e.g. be protected from information manipulation). Some of NASA’s communications, such as medical information and private astronaut communications, also need to be protected from eavesdropping. Thus IA is critical in preserving the integrity and confidentiality of future operational relay satellite systems; this is particularly needed for NASA’s human exploration missions, such as the future Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. With the SHIM, the LCRD flight payload could be hosted on an untrusted non-US government spacecraft and maintain complete information assurance.

Payload Integration: Integration and test of the LCRD flight payload has been occurring at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and is near completion. Each optical terminal has been installed on the LSA (LCRD Support Assembly) provided by the spacecraft provider. Table 2 and Figure 15 identifies and shows the major components of the flight payload as installed on the LSA.

ID Number

Payload component


Optical Module 1


Controller Electronics 1


Modem 1 Tower A


Modem 1 Tower B


Communications Splice Box 1 (CoSB 1)


Optical Module 2


Controller Electronics 2


Modem 2 Tower A


Modem 2 Tower B


Communications Splice Box 2 (CoSB 2)


Space Switching Unit A (Primary)


Space Switching Unit B (Redundant)


Secure Host Interface Module (SHIM)


SV Protocol Coupler Router (PCR)


SV Harness Interface Box


SV Star Tracker


LCRD Support Assembly (LSA)


Isolation System

Table 2: LCRD flight payload components


Figure 15: LCRD flight payload configuration (outboard side is on the left), image credit: NASA


Figure 16: Block diagram of the LCRD payload (image credit: LCRD partnership)


Figure 17: Benefits of optical communications (image credit: LCRD partnership)

Further payloads on STPSat-6

STPSat-6 advances warfighting capabilities by delivering operational nuclear detonation detection capabilities and demonstrating new space technologies in the areas of space domain awareness, weather, and laser communications. The Space Test Program division manages the STPSat-6 program and is responsible for coordinating the integration of nine payloads onto STPSat-6.

These nine payloads include Space and Atmospheric Burst Reporting System - 3, the primary payload on STPSat-6 developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration, National Aeronautic and Space Administration's Laser Communications Relay Demonstration payload, and seven experimental payloads manifested after being assessed and prioritized by the DoD Space Experiment Review Board.

UVSC (Ultraviolet Spectro-Coronagraph) Pathfinder

A joint NASA-U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) experiment dedicated to studying the origins of solar energetic particles — the Sun’s most dangerous form of radiation — is ready for launch. 27)

UVSC Pathfinder will hitch a ride to space aboard STPSat-6, the primary spacecraft of the Space Test Program-3 (STP-3) mission for the Department of Defense. STP-3 is scheduled to lift off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket no earlier than Nov. 22, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Solar Energetic Particles (SEPs), are a type of space weather that pose a major challenge to space exploration. A solar particle storm, or SEP event, occurs when the Sun fires energetic particles into space at such high speeds that some reach Earth — 93 million miles away — in less than an hour. Flurries of the powerful particles can wreak havoc with spacecraft and expose astronauts to dangerous radiation.

UVSC Pathfinder will peer at the lowest regions of the Sun’s outer atmosphere, or corona, where SEPs are thought to originate. While the Sun releases eruptions almost daily when it is most active, there are only about 20 disruptive solar particle storms during any given 11-year solar cycle. Scientists can’t reliably predict which of these will produce SEPs, nor their intensity. Understanding and eventually predicting these solar storms are crucial for enabling future space exploration.

“It’s a pathfinder because we’re demonstrating new technology and a new way to forecast this type of space weather,” said Leonard Strachan, an astrophysicist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and the mission’s principal investigator. “Right now, there’s no real way of predicting when these particle storms will happen.”

Figure 18: A close up of a solar eruption, including a solar flare, a coronal mass ejection, and a solar energetic particle event (image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

Understanding and predicting SEPs

UVSC Pathfinder is a coronagraph, a kind of instrument that blocks the Sun’s bright face to reveal the dimmer, surrounding corona. Most coronagraphs have a single aperture with a series of occulters that block the Sun and reduce stray light. The novelty of UVSC Pathfinder is that it uses five separate apertures, each with its own occulter — significantly boosting the signal from the corona.

In the corona, scientists expect to find the special group of particles that eventually becomes solar energetic particles. Not just any regular particle in the Sun’s atmosphere can be energized to an SEP. Rather, scientists think SEPs come from swarms of seed particles residing in the corona that are already around 10 times hotter and more energetic than their neighbors. Those could come from bright bursts of energy, called flares, or regions of intense magnetic fields in the corona, called current sheets.

It takes some prior energetic solar activity to fire up the seed particles. Occasionally, the Sun unleashes massive clouds of solar material, called coronal mass ejections. Those explosions can generate a shock ahead of them, like the wave that crests at the front of a speeding boat. “If a coronal mass ejection comes out fast enough” — 600 miles per second at least — “it can produce a shock, which can sweep up these particles,” Strachan explained. “The particles get so much energy from the shock, they become SEPs.”

Unlike most coronagraphs that take images in visible light, UVSC Pathfinder is unique because it’s combined with a spectrometer that measures ultraviolet light, a kind of light that’s invisible to human eyes. By analyzing the light in the corona, researchers hope to identify when seed particles are present.

Scientists have routinely observed SEPs from the near-Earth perspective — 93 million miles (150 million km) away from their origin. Since seed particles are only present in the corona, it has been impossible to measure them directly. UVSC Pathfinder aims to observe the elusive particles by remotely sensing their signatures in ultraviolet light. “We know rather little about them,” said Martin Laming, a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory physicist and UVSC Pathfinder’s science lead. “This is really a ground-breaking observation.”

The impacts of SEP swarms are serious. When it comes to spacecraft, they can fry electronics, corrupt a satellite’s computer programming, damage solar panels, and even disorient a spacecraft’s star tracker, used for navigation. The effect is like driving through a blizzard and getting lost: SEPs fill the star tracker’s view, and losing its ability to orient itself, it spins off orbit.

To humans, SEPs are dangerous because they can pass through spacecraft or an astronaut’s skin, where they can damage cells or DNA. This damage can increase risk for cancer later in life, or in extreme cases, cause acute radiation sickness in the short-term. (On Earth, our planet’s protective magnetic field and atmosphere shield humans from this harm.) A series of enormous solar flares in August 1972 — in between the Apollo 16 and 17 missions — serves as a reminder of the threat solar activity and radiation poses.


Figure 19: UVSC Pathfinder is a spectro-coronagraph, which is an instrument that blocks the Sun’s bright face to reveal the dimmer, surrounding corona. It is shown here being inspected after thermal vacuum testing at NRL (image credit: Courtesy of Leonard Strachan)

The UVSC Pathfinder experiment marks a major step toward understanding where SEPs come from and how they evolve as they travel through the solar system. The data will help scientists predict whether a solar explosion could generate problematic SEPs much the way we predict severe weather events on Earth. Forecasts would enable spacecraft operators and astronauts to take steps to mitigate their impacts. “If our thinking is correct, seed particles will be a really important signature of radiation storms to watch out for,” Laming said.

Figure 20: Images from NASA's STEREO satellite show a coronal mass ejection followed by a flurry of solar energetic particles (image credits: NASA/STEREO)

Joining NASA’s heliophysics fleet

UVSC Pathfinder is the latest addition to NASA's fleet of heliophysics observatories. NASA heliophysics missions study a vast, interconnected system from the Sun to the space surrounding Earth and other planets, and to the farthest limits of the Sun's constantly flowing stream of solar wind. UVSC Pathfinder provides key information on SEPs, enabling future space exploration.

The mission’s observations will complement those of two other solar observatories. The new coronagraph will look as close as 865,000 miles from the Sun, while NASA’s Parker Solar Probe and the European Space Agency and NASA’s Solar Orbiter will directly sample the space up to a distance of 3.8 million miles and 26.7 million miles from the Sun, respectively. “We hope coordinated observations will be useful in pinning down the evolution of SEPs as they move out from the Sun,” Strachan said.

“The NASA science program has a long history of obtaining predictive space weather tools from the results of pure research missions,” said Daniel Moses, chief technologist in NASA’s Heliophysics Division. “Collaboration between the NASA Science Mission Directorate, the Naval Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense STP program has been particularly fruitful in this area. UVSC Pathfinder continues this proud tradition of basic research collaboration with the potential of developing a new, high-impact tool with predictive capability.”

UVSC Pathfinder is a NASA and U.S. Naval Research Laboratory payload aboard the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program Satellite-6 (STPSat-6). It flies alongside NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), which is testing an enhanced communications capability with the potential to increase bandwidth 10 to 100 times more than radio frequency systems — allowing space missions to send more data home. The instrument unit has a mass of 47 kg without gimbal. The total mass, including the Telescope Pointing System, is 125 kg.

UVSC Pathfinder was designed and built at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. It was funded through NASA’s Heliophysics Program and the Office of Naval Research. It is managed by the Heliophysics Technology and Instrument Development for Science ( H-TIDeS) program office at NASA Headquarters. STP is operated by the United States Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

Ground segment of LCRD

The LCRD ground segment is comprised of the LMOC (LCRD Mission Operations Center) and two ground stations. The LMOC at WSC (White Sands Complex) NM will perform all scheduling, command, and control of the LCRD payload and the ground stations. In addition, there is a PMOC (partial Mission Operations Center),located at GSFC to support experimenters and the engineering team, and the flight payload in geostationary orbit. The design reference mission for LCRD is illustrated in Figure 2.

Each Earth ground station must provide three functions when communicating with one of the two optical communications terminals on the GEO spacecraft:

- receive the communications signal from the GEO space terminal

- transmit a signal to the GEO space terminal, and

- transmit an uplink beacon beam so that the GEO space terminal points to the correct location on the Earth.

The receiver on Earth must provide a collector large enough to capture adequate power to support the data rate; couple this light onto low noise, efficient detectors while trying to minimize the coupled background light; and perform synchronization, demodulation, and decoding of the received waveform.

The uplink beacon, transmitted from each Earth ground station, must provide a pointing reference to establish the GEO space terminal beam pointing direction. Turbulence effects dominate the laser power required for a ground-based beacon. Turbulence spreads the beam, reducing mean irradiance at the terminal in space, and causes fluctuations in the instantaneous received power.

JPL will enhance its OCTL (Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory) so that it can be used as Ground Station 1 of the demonstration. OCTL is located in the San Gabriel mountains of southern California and houses a 1 m F/76 Coudé focus telescope. The large aperture readily supports the high data rate DPSK and PPM downlinks from the LCRD space terminal with adequate link margin. The Coudé configuration allows for LCRD operations to continue during the setup, integration, test and operations of other concurrent experiments. The fully enclosed design of ground station 1 systems protects users in the Coudé laboratory, as well as protects the optical systems from accidental jostling and atmospheric disturbances. A fail-safe LASSO (Laser Safety System at the OCTL) will ensure safe laser beam transmission through navigable air and near-Earth space.

A state-of-the-art AO (Adaptive Optics) system is being implemented to facilitate coupling the downlinked signal into a single-mode fiber, which conducts it to a high rate detector. The AO system is capable of coupling more than half the received signal into the single mode fiber even under poor seeing conditions and at low elevation angles. A comprehensive monitor and control system will coordinate the receipt of schedules, and direct subsystems to set up and operate according to those schedules. Ground Station 1 also supports extensive simultaneous multi-user, multichannel services such as bitstream, symbolstream, Internet Protocol and AOS (Advanced Orbiting Systems). Resident simulators (User MOC Simulators and User Platform Simulators) have been implemented to exercise the system to its full capacity, allowing users to fully characterize the system capability under a wide variety of nominal configurations. An Atmospheric Channel Monitoring system will measure and record real-time data on weather conditions, photometry conditions, and seeing conditions for real-time and subsequent correlation with link performance.

A general block diagram for either ground station is shown in Figure 21. The green blocks in the diagram denote common elements that are being developed for LCRD, while the other boxes are specific to a particular ground station.


Figure 21: Ground station block diagram (image credit: NASA)

The telescope assembly subsystems are capable of transmitting and receiving laser light while pointing towards the LCRD flight payload. GS-1 will use a 1 m telescope for both the uplink and downlink, while GS-2 will use a single 15 cm telescope for uplink and 60 cm telescope for downlink.

OGS (Optical Ground Station -1) of LCRD

NASA/JPL will enhance its OCTL (Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory) at Table Mountain, CA, so that it can be used as GS-1 of the demonstration. 28)


Figure 22: Current view of the OCTL telescope at JPL (image credit: JPL)

OCTL telescope will be modified with an optical flat to support links in the presence of more windy conditions.

The integrated optical system at the telescope coudé focus is shown in Figure23. A shutter controlled by a sun sensor protects the adaptive optics system should the telescope inadvertently point closer to the sun than specified. The downlink is collimated by an off axis parabolic mirror is incident on a fast tip/tilt mirror and dichroic beam splitter before reflecting off a DM (Deformable Mirror). A fraction of the beam is coupled to the wavefront sensor to measure the aberrations in the downlink beam. A scoring camera monitors the quality of the corrected beam that is focused into a fiber coupled to the DPSK/PPM receiver. A waveplate adjusts the polarization into the fiber to the DPSK Mach-Zehnder interferometer and a slow tip/tilt mirror ensures maximum signal input to the fiber. In the uplink system the beacon and communications beams are first reflected from slow tip/tilt mirror to track out satellite motions and is then coupled to the telescope through a dichroic mirror.


Figure 23: Schematic of the integrated optical system to be located at coudé focus in OCTL (image credit: JPL)

OGS-2 (Optical Ground Station-2) of LCRD

OGS-2’s installation was a collaborative effort between government, commercial and academic institutions. The MIT /LL (Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Lincoln Laboratory) provided the test and diagnostics terminal, which consists of three parts: an optical subsystem, digital subsystem and controller electronics. The three components send, receive and process optical signals to and from LCRD. 29)

Optical communications, through the development of LCRD and its two ground terminals, could have far-reaching impacts for future knowledge of Earth and our solar system. Spacecraft equipped with optical communications systems will effectively allow enhanced data, such as high-resolution video, to be brought back down to Earth faster, thanks to increased data rates. With this data, scientists will get a closer look at our universe with the potential to uncover exciting new discoveries.

The Space Network and LCRD are both managed out of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Programmatic oversight for the Space Network is provided by the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program within NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. LCRD is funded by SCaN and the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Technology Demonstration Missions program based at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

MIT/LL (Lincoln Laboratory) is developing Ground Station 2 to be deployed at the Air Force’s Maui Optical and Supercomputing Space Surveillance Complex on top of Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii (Figure 24).


Figure 24: OGS-2 (Optical Ground Station 2) location at the Maui Optical and Supercomputing Space Surveillance Complex (image credit: NASA)

Ground Station 2 will have a 60 cm receive aperture, a 15 cm transmit aperture, and be located within an approximately 5.5 m diameter dome on Maui, Hawaii; ideally it will be located at a summit of one of the volcanoes there to get above the clouds and have excellent atmospheric seeing conditions. NASA has been specifically studying Haleakala, a dormant volcano on the island of Maui, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, on the Big Island (Ref. 9).

Ground Station 2’s laser subsystem consists of a custom photonics assembly that produces a low power (<10 mW) fiber-coupled optical signal, followed by a commercially obtained high-power optical amplifier. The fiber amplifier can produce up to 10 W of optical power but will be limited by software to a maximum power of 7.3 W during operation. After accounting for transmission loss of the transmit telescope and the window in the dome, the maximum power emitted into free space outside the dome is 5.4 W.


Figure 25: Illustration of the LLGT (image credit: MIT/LL)

The LCRD USG (User Services Gateway) is the interface between the LCRD Network and users for data transfer services. The USG supports realtime frame and symbol stream services, as well as interfaces for higher layer services, such as IP packets and DTN (Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking) bundles. The USG can (de)multiplex different users and data streams within any of the potential trunkline channels. The USG also provides the interface to allow the inline command and telemetry flows between the LMOC and Flight Payload over the optical links.

In order for LCRD to perform demonstrations of complex scenarios and exercise all of the possible data paths and modes, a UPS (User Platform Simulator) and User Mission Operations Center Simulator (UMS) will be located at each ground station. The simulators will allow high rate data streams to flow over the optical links without requiring high data rate connections out from the ground stations. The inclusion of the service interfaces and simulators enables LCRD to be ready for whenever a real user may come online.

Other ground station subsystems which are not part of the user data flow, include ground station monitor and control, atmospheric monitoring instruments, and laser safety systems. The monitor and control system provides the interface for the LMOC to monitor and control the ground stations. The atmospheric monitoring instruments will provide the necessary measurement to improve the models and operational strategies needed for a future operation optical relay network. The laser safety systems will provide the necessary safeguards to shut off laser transmissions in the event that an aircraft is detected or a satellite has been predicted to be in the path by the U.S. Strategic Command’s Laser Clearinghouse.

The LCRD mission is planned for two years of operations with a goal for at least five years. This experiment duration, much greater than LLCD’s month of operations, will allow extended characterization of hardware performance, link performance, atmospheric effects, and operational approaches. There will be enough data and time to refine and validate models and to repeat scenarios with different operations schemes. The extended time with two ground stations will allow for optimization of handover approaches and provide the key data needed to determine the optimum number of ground stations for a future operational network and other approaches to minimize user data loss and increase system availability. The system will be capable to not only simulate the GEO relay scenario, but to also insert data relays for some deep space link scenarios.

LCRD will not just demonstrate technology. It will be the first instantiation of an optical link service provider. The two optical links will be capable of supporting the realtime relay from a satellite user to Earth or even between two user platforms. The system will incorporate service interfaces for LCRD users to schedule their links, transmit and receive their data terrestrially, and receive in-event support status. Experiments will include executing timelines that include multiple orbiting users with different data rates and service requirements. NASA will be able to develop the specifications for a future communications architecture, based on experience and validated models. Trade studies to define system requirements will be able to use LCRD data to substantiate values and claims. Future users of optical communications will also be able to see an operational system, in order to understand how the services will enable their missions and set their expectations for the network support. It is anticipated that some of the experiment time will be used to support experiments defined by commercial operators, in order to address their particular interests.

Though it is expected that Industry would provide the future relay flight hardware, the NASA experience in procuring, integrating, testing, and operating the flight terminal will inform the procurement activities of future systems. NASA will be more capable to develop the specifications and manage system deliveries. The technology, knowledge, and experience will all be shared with Industry and will improve the design proposals.

The experience as a hosted payload will benefit both NASA and commercial operators. NASA will get to experience the full lifecycle from concept development through operations and will have a better understanding of all of the benefits and possible limitations of a hosted payload approach. Commercial satellite communications operators will also receive insight into what the opportunity to host a NASA relay communications capability would entail. Perhaps more importantly, commercial operators will see optical communications demonstrated between Earth stations and a GEO relay and be able to start planning their own future architectures incorporating the technology.

Overall LCRD Operations

LCRD systems are distributed across several facilities to support experiments and demonstrations. LCRD consists of the LCRD Mission Operations Center at WSC (White Sands Complex), two OGSs located in California and Hawaii, a partial Mission Operations Center (to support experimenters and the engineering team) located at GSFC, and the flight payload in geostationary orbit. The facilities and their locations are shown in Figure 26.


Figure 26: LCRD operational asset map (image credit: NASA)

Control of all activities during LCRD will take place from the LMOC (LCRD Mission Operations Center) at WSC. The LMOC is connected with all other segments, and communicates with the two ground stations using high capacity connections. Connection to the space segment will be provided either through one of the ground stations, or through a lower capacity connection to the host spacecraft’s HMOC (Mission Operations Center) and then to the LCRD flight payload by RF link.

The LMOC will provide services such as:

• Planning and scheduling

• Control

• Status Monitoring

• Reporting and Accountability.

The mission operations for the spacecraft and the optical communications demonstration are intimately intertwined. The unique nature of the demonstration is that there is a path to and from the spacecraft that is outside the usual RF connection. Commands for the payload can be sent via either the optical uplink or via the Host Spacecraft RF uplink. There are two paths for getting engineering data (health and status), again via optical or RF. The LMOC coordinates all optical communications activities and provides an interface to the spacecraft operations.

Due to the vagaries of weather and atmospheric conditions, operations strategies for mitigation of these effects will be explored. One possibility would be to have multiple terminals within the same beam simultaneously receive the same data to guarantee getting through to at least one terminal at a reasonably high percentage of the time. On the other hand, buffering and retransmission strategies can be used to downlink the data to single geographically (and meteorologically) diverse stations in a form of temporal diversity.

The ground stations will have the capability to simulate both user spacecraft and user MOC data systems. This will allow the demonstration of high data rate scenarios without the requirement for high data rate connections external to the ground stations. The simulators will also allow multiple user and user-type scenarios. The LCRD payload itself will also include the ability to simulate user spacecraft data and multiple relay user spacecraft data systems.

The system will be continuously operating, as much as possible, over the two year mission. The system will either be configured to be demonstrating or testing a specific DTE (Direct-to-Earth) scenario, relay scenario, or be continually characterizing the optical channel and hardware. The DTE and relay scenarios will emulate different user and relay locations, orbits, and/or trajectories.

Flight Payload Operations

The LCRD flight payload has the following operating modes as defined in Figure 27:

1) Off/Survival Mode: In this mode the LCRD Payload power is removed and only the survival heaters are powered from the Host Spacecraft. The Payload will launch in this mode and remain there until the first power-on event.

2) Payload System Initialization Mode: In this mode, the Payload is powered on, but not yet ready to support normal operations. The Payload will enter this mode in one of two cases: Payload initial power up after launch or Payload return to power after Off/Survival mode.

3) Payload Self-Test/Calibration Mode: In this mode, the Payload will have at least the SSU and one OST (Optical Space Terminal) powered on. The second OST may be either powered off or powered on. This mode is used to execute predefined self-test functions within the Payload.

4) Payload Operational Mode: In this mode, the Payload has been powered up and initial configuration established such that the Payload can communicate with the LMOC via the Host interface, can attempt to acquire an optical communication links with OGSs and/or User platforms, and once a link is established provide forward and return service relays and Direct Uplinks/Downlinks.


Figure 27: LCRD payload mode transition diagram (image credit: NASA)

Ground Segment Operations

The ground segment consists primarily of the LMOC and two OGSs. The LMOC coordinates all LCRD operations activities, provides the mission data store, provides an interface for User service planning and scheduling, and provides the experiment operations center. The OGSs provide a User MOC interface, User MOC and user platform simulators, and the optical link from the Earth to the Payload. The LMOC will operate 24 hours per day, seven day per week to receive Payload, OGS, and Host Mission telemetry. The LMOC and OGSs will initially be staffed 8 hours per day, 5 days per week after on-orbit Payload checkout to conduct experiments and support User services. The ground segment will be staffed for certain 24 hour period during the mission to support longer duration experiment operations.

Routine operations will be performed continuously during staffed operations periods. The main operations tasks will be performed from the LMOC at WSC and include:

• Monitor payload and ground system telemetry for proper execution of commands

• Monitor payload and ground system telemetry for limit violations or changes in state that may be a precursor to limit violations

• Monitor payload and ground system telemetry for anomalies that threaten health and safety, and to take appropriate action to ensure health and safety in the event of a system anomaly

• Monitor the atmospheric conditions at each ground station

• Monitor link status for each optical link and the host spacecraft RF link

• Monitor quality of service for each user service

• Respond to user service requests and support requests from the ExpO team and external users

• Perform planned and unplanned ground station handover and ground system reconfiguration operations when required

• Execute performance data monitoring functions and data storage in support of ExpO team analysis

• Implement scheduling change requests from the ExpO team and external users

• Perform routine housekeeping functions including data store back up, periodic payload and ground calibration functions, clock management, data correlation, preventive system maintenance and other planned maintenance and repair activities.

• Contact engineering, ground system, or supervisory personnel in the event of a significant anomaly.

Each LCRD OGS will be staffed during the same period as the LMOC to support routine operations which include:

• Provide laser safety functions

• Monitor and control ground station local equipment

• Monitor the atmospheric conditions at the ground station

• Monitor link status for the ground station optical link

• Monitor quality of service for each User service provided at the ground station

• Support diagnostic procedures when degraded performance is detected

• Perform routine housekeeping functions including data store back up, ground station optical calibration functions, clock management, preventive system maintenance and other planned maintenance activities

• Contact engineering, ground system, or supervisory personnel in the event of a significant anomaly.

PAT (Pointing, Acquisition, and Tracking) Concept of Operations

There are two PAT operations cases for LCRD. The first is the establishment of optical links between the payload and an OGS. This is the simplest case given the relative stability of the host spacecraft orbit and the fixed location of the ground stations on the Earth’s surface. This case will generally be applied to at least one optical terminal on the payload for normal operations. It may be applied to both optical terminals during demonstration and experiment activities and may include an outside user ground station not under LCRD control. The second case is PAT operations for a moving user platform. This could include an airborne platform or space-borne Low Earth Orbit (LEO) platform (up to 1000 km altitude). The most complex case for LCRD will be PAT associated with a LEO platform due to relative movement of the LEO platform with regard to the payload. This case may be applied to at least one optical terminal on the payload to support a user forward and/or return relay service. It may be applied to both optical terminals during demonstration and experiment activities to support user-to-user relays.

The LCRD payload, each LCRD OGS, and user platforms will follow a predefined acquisition sequence. The LMOC will coordinate the initial acquisition sequence between the payload and a ground station element and/or the payload and a user platform. A series of states are passed through during the acquisition process. Each state represents an intermediate step that is the result of a prior action. The diagram illustrating nominal acquisition sequence flow from state to state is shown in Figure 28. In this diagram states evolve from left to right during the course of the acquisition.


Figure 28: Nominal LCRD acquisition flow (image credit: NASA)

The LCRD Payload Optical Space Terminal states are:

• S1 - LCRD Optical Space Terminal initialized but not illuminated by the beacon or uplink beam

• S2 - LCRD Optical Space Terminal illuminated by the beacon

• S3 - LCRD Optical Space Terminal illuminated by the uplink beam

• S4 - LCRD Optical Space Terminal receiving data frames.

The Ground Stations or User Platform states are:

• T1 - Ground Station or User Platform initialized but not illuminated by the downlink

• T2 - Ground Station or User Platform illuminated by the (optionally dithered) downlink beam

• T3 - Ground Station or User Platform synchronized clock to downlink beam stream

• T4 - Ground Station or User Platform receiving data frames.

Once initial acquisition has been established between an OGS and the payload or the payload and a user platform, maintaining the communications link is handled by the payload and the OGS or the payload and the user without interaction from the LMOC. The payload and OGSs may use a SLPA (Closed Loop Point Ahead) algorithm built into the optical link to maintain accurate pointing. The link between the payload and a user platform is required to use CLPA. The User platform is required to apply Doppler compensation to maintain the link between the Payload and the User platform.

Optical Trunk Line Concept of Operations

LCRD provides the capability to multiplex user service data and payload command and telemetry data using the same optical link. This is referred to as an “optical trunk line” and is illustrated in Figure 29. The trunk line concept allows multiple users, types of data, and data destinations to be multiplexed together on the optical link at the optical frame level. The forward data trunk line is demultiplexed at the LCRD payload, and user data or commands routed to the correct user platform (or executed by the payload in the case of command). The return trunk line data frames get demultiplexed on the ground; User data sent to the appropriate user MOC, and telemetry is sent to the LCRD MOC.

The optical trunk line can support a slot rate of 2.88 Gbit/s in each direction for any modulation or data rate. The optical frame rate depends upon the modulation (DPSK or PPM), configured link dead time, and number of Q-repeats. The transmit side modem sends a continuous stream of frames. LCRD supports multiplexing of multiple data streams over a single optical link in both directions: user service data frames, payload command and telemetry frames, and idle fill frames (sent whenever there is no user data or payload commands or telemetry). This is achieved by the use of dynamic TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access), with the frames sent “on demand”, in the order that they are received by the modem.


Figure 29: Optical trunk line (image credit: NASA)

Ground Station Handover Concept of Operations

Under certain conditions, the optical link between the payload and an OGS may be handed over to another OGS. A handover between ground stations may only occur if there is an available ground station to receive the handed over optical link. Some conditions that may drive this scenario are weather, laser safety issues, planned or unplanned maintenance, and laser operation blackout periods. Handovers are a highly manual procedure with no autonomy built into the payload. All handover operations must be coordinated through the LMOC, whether planned or unplanned. The general sequence of events is the same for both planned and unplanned handover scenarios. In this context, “OGS-A” is the station handing over, “OGS-B” is the receiving ground station. Assume OGS-B is fully functional with locally nominal atmospheric conditions.

1) User(s) and LCRD assets notified of impending ground station handover if possible.

2) OGS-B brought to operational/hot stand by state. This state means being configured to begin the acquisition sequence with the Payload and in the same optical link configuration (data rate an modulation) and ground system configuration as OGS-A for user services and in-band command/telemetry.

3) User services and/or in-band command/telemetry over the optical link terminated at OGS-A and the Payload.

4) Users establish forward/return data link with OGS-B and terminate with OGS-A.

5) Payload is configured via the host spacecraft RF link to point an OST at OGS-B and is ready to begin acquisition.

6) OGS-B and the payload complete acquisition sequence and establish optical communications link.

7) User services and/or in-band command/telemetry resume through OGS-B.

Figure 30 illustrates the pre-handover configuration and the post-handover configuration. During this scenario, the optical link with the user platform does not have to be terminated and should remain established through the second OST if possible to expedite resumption of service. The user will lose any data transmitted during the ground station handover. The user will be notified ahead of time if possible to mitigate data loss if the user mission desires.


Figure 30: Optical ground station handover (image credit: NASA)

Conducting Experiments

LCRD is designed to support demonstrations and experiments in optical communications and optical communication networking. The LCRD Principle Investigator will lead a team to define demonstrations and experiments to be executed using LCRD mission assets. As the mission progresses, new demonstrations and experiments will be defined and executed using the base system functions or system enhancements. LCRD will support simulation of:

1) User-GEO-Ground relay

2) User-to-User Relay

3) Near Earth and Deep Space Relay

4) Direct Uplink/Downlink

5) Optical trunk line handovers

6) Forward/return link handovers.

LCRD will enable the following capabilities required to support experiments and demonstrations:

1) User MOC Simulators (UMSs) and User Platform Simulators (UPSs)

2) Data collection and tools for analysis of data and link characteristics

3) Simulation of various latencies in data transmission and receipt

4) Variations in scheduled service data rates and combinations of service data rates

5) Data rate variations in response to deteriorating link conditions

6) Variations in user traffic loading relative to allocated service data rates

7) Simulation of weather and atmospheric effects

8) Simulation of different line-of-site distances

9) Variations in relay asset availability.

Laser transmitter power reduction from Ground Stations, off-pointing the payload optical space terminal or attenuating the signal at the Ground Station may be used to simulate the effects of the channel on the weak signals returned from deep space distances. The relay may also use different modulation or data rates on each leg to simulate collection of data from multiple sources at lower data rates, which is then combined and relayed to a Ground Station.

Relay tests in each Near-Earth or deep space scenario will attempt to simulate differences in latency, maximum data rates, line-of-site and scheduled link availability, and other required tuning to accurately reflect different scenarios. LCRD will enable the implementation of tools required to support these scenarios over the course of the mission. The LCRD system will enable evaluation of protocols such as DTN ( Disruption Tolerant Networking), which are meant to alleviate the related communications issues.

Scheduling Service

The LMOC is responsible for coordination of LCRD network activities. The LMOC is the focal point for planning the use of LCRD resources for functions including experiment operations, user service support, payload operations, sustaining engineering activities, and maintenance activities. The LMOC will be responsible for coordinating the configuration of LMOC subsystems, the LCRD payload, and OGS support.

The LMOC will produce three schedule types covering different timescales: the Mission Timeline, the Active Schedule, and the Operational Schedule. The Mission Timeline will be a human-readable, high-level, long-term operations schedule incorporating long-range planning inputs. Its purpose will be to allow each ground element to plan their operator staffing schedules, to arrange periods of extended operations (outside of typical operating times), and to identify potential scheduling conflicts well in advance to facilitate negotiating solutions. Inputs will include scheduled LMOC downtimes, availability schedules for each OGS, availability of external interface systems, high-level experiment plans, and LCRD User Service Level Agreements.

The Active Schedule will be the medium-term planning product consisting of the conflict-free, constraint checked, and optimized schedule of committed operational services and all LCRD activities necessary to support those services. Its purpose will be to represent the configuration of all LCRD assets and support schedules or constraints from external entities to ensure a consistent configuration that will enable execution of planned user services. Inputs will include the current Mission Timeline, updates to scheduled LMOC downtimes, updates to availability schedules for each OGS, availability of external interfaces, predictive avoidance constraints from the Laser Clearing House, detailed experiment plans, and user service requests. Mission Planning and Scheduling will generate an updated Active Schedule a minimum of once per week for LCRD operations covering the next fourteen 24-hour operational days.

Mission Planning and Scheduling will generate two additional types of products for external systems based on the Active Schedule. The first will be a predictive avoidance request message covering the next few days of laser activity by the LCRD payload optical terminal that will be sent to the Laser Clearing House. This will be used by Laser Clearing House to generate a Predictive Avoidance file for LCRD. The second product for an external system will be a high-level activity schedule containing times the LCRD payload will operate and any operational events that may impact host spacecraft flight or ground operations. The LMOC will send this schedule to the Host Mission Operations Center as a planning aid for the host spacecraft mission.

The Operational Schedule will be the short-term schedule provided to the LMOC subsystems to be executed for asset configuration and control. This schedule is generated once before every “operational day”, which is defined to be the current 24-hour period beginning at 00:00:00 UTC. It will facilitate timing and coordinating the configuration of all assets to support user services and experiments. This schedule may be regenerated at any time during an operational day for unplanned OGS handovers, unplanned maintenance or downtime events for the LMOC, LCRD payload, each OGS, or external support assets, changes to experiment or demonstration support plans, change requests from users, or any other reason.

An OSE (Operational Schedule Excerpt) will be generated from the full Operational Schedule and distributed to each asset required to support the schedule for the current operational day. The OSE consists of the subset of the full Operational Schedule that pertains specifically to that asset, will be executable by that asset’s local control system, and will contain any information required to execute the schedule. The appropriate versions will be sent to the LMOC Service Management subsystem, Payload T&C System, and each OGS. An Operational Schedule for
each actual or simulated user will also be generated representing the timing and duration of the user platform optical link and User Mission Operations Center ground connection and the traffic profiles associated with each scheduled data service for the latter. If the Operational Schedule is regenerated for a given operational day, a new set of OSEs will be generated and distributed.

LCRD will ingest planning aids and information from external sources for use in conflict resolution and optimization of the Active Schedule and Operational Schedule. These products include the Predictive Avoidance file from the Laser Clearing House, planning aids from the host spacecraft operator, and flight dynamic information from LCRD users.

Planning for a given time period will begin with the process of adding that period to the Mission Timeline. This will facilitate long-term planning, principally resolving issues of staffing and asset downtime, and will be largely a manual process carried out by the mission planner. In the medium term the mission planner will add activities for the period to the active schedule. This will allow a more detailed representation of planned activities in software and conflict resolution and optimization of the schedule. Near the start of a given operational day, the Mission Planning and Scheduling function will output the Operational Schedule covering that operational day based on the current Active Schedule (Ref. 9).

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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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