NASA laser message beams video of a cat named Taters back to Earth – and it’s a big deal
(CNN) — A laser communications experiment flying aboard NASA’s Psyche mission has beamed back a video to Earth from nearly 19 million miles (31 million kilometers) away — and the short clip stars a cat named Taters. It’s the first time NASA has streamed a video from deep space using a laser.
In the ultra-high definition video, the playful orange tabby cat chases, of all things, the elusive red dot from a laser pointer as it moves across a couch.
The cat video was transmitted to Earth from a flight laser transceiver as part of the Deep Space Optical Communications experiment, or DSOC. The technology could one day be used to quickly transmit data, imagery and videos as humans push the limits of space exploration by venturing to places like Mars.
The 15-second video was encoded in a near-infrared laser and beamed from the Psyche spacecraft to the Hale Telescope at the California Institute of Technology’s Palomar Observatory. The video was downloaded at the observatory on December 11, and each frame was streamed live at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
At the time of the transmission, the distance between the Psyche spacecraft and Hale was 80 times the distance between Earth and the moon. It only took 101 seconds for the laser to each Earth.
The laser can send data at 10 to 100 times the speed of traditional radio wave systems NASA uses on other missions. The tech demo was designed to be NASA’s most distant experiment of high-bandwidth laser communications, testing the sending and receiving of data to and from Earth using an invisible near-infrared laser.
“This accomplishment underscores our commitment to advancing optical communications as a key element to meeting our future data transmission needs,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a statement. “Increasing our bandwidth is essential to achieving our future exploration and science goals, and we look forward to the continued advancement of this technology and the transformation of how we communicate during future interplanetary missions.”
Laser communications in deep space
Launched in mid-October, the Psyche mission is currently en route to catch humanity’s first glimpse of a metal asteroid between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft will spend the next six years traveling about 2.2 billion miles (3.6 billion kilometers) to reach its namesake, located in the outer part of the main asteroid belt.
But the Deep Space Optical Communications experiment is carrying out a mission of its own during the first two years of the journey.
“One of the goals is to demonstrate the ability to transmit broadband video across millions of miles. Nothing on Psyche generates video data, so we usually send packets of randomly generated test data,” said Bill Klipstein, DSOC project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a statement.
“But to make this significant event more memorable, we decided to work with designers at JPL to create a fun video, which captures the essence of the demo as part of the Psyche mission.”
‘Everyone loves Taters’
The DSOC team collaborated with the creators at JPL’s in-house DesignLab when determining which video they wanted to test across deep space.
The video, which was uploaded to DSOC before the Psyche launch, also includes a graphics overlay that showcases Psyche’s orbital path, the Palomar telescope dome and Taters’ color, breed and heart rate.
“Despite transmitting from millions of miles away, it was able to send the video faster than most broadband internet connections,” said Ryan Rogalin, DSOC receiver electronics lead at JPL, in a statement.
“In fact, after receiving the video at Palomar, it was sent to JPL over the internet, and that connection was slower than the signal coming from deep space. JPL’s DesignLab did an amazing job helping us showcase this technology — everyone loves Taters.”
Apart from the broad popularity of cat videos and memes, the decision to include a cat video for DSOC’s milestone is also a nod to broadcast history. A statuette of the Felix the Cat cartoon was used in television test broadcast transmissions beginning in 1928, according to NASA.
The laser experiment’s latest successful test comes after DSOC’s milestone on November 14 achieving what engineers called “first light,” the feat of successfully sending and receiving its first data. Since then, the tech demo has only improved, showcasing capabilities like improved pointing accuracy that’s so essential when sending laser messages from space to Earth.
The laser’s fast data downlink speeds are comparable to broadband internet, and the DSOC team recently downloaded 1.3 terabits of data in one evening — comparable to the 1.2 terabits sent back by NASA’s Magellan mission to Venus over the course of four years in the 1990s.
“When we achieved first light, we were excited, but also cautious. This is a new technology, and we are experimenting with how it works,” said Ken Andrews, project flight operations lead at JPL, in a statement. “But now, with the help of our Psyche colleagues, we are getting used to working with the system and can lock onto the spacecraft and ground terminals for longer than we could previously. We are learning something new during each checkout.”