Back in 2004 I remember reading a New Scientist article that explored how NASA was developing Laser technology that would let Earth communicate with spacecraft at 30 million bits per second — compared to the top speed of 128,000 bits per second at the time. Many years later and NASA is announcing that they’re finally pushing their laser-based broadband plans forward, with a new deployment of the technology they say should result in increased speeds from the now-6Mbps they see currently — to 100 Mbps. From the NASA press release:
Data rates 10-100 times more capable than current RF systems will allow greatly improved connectivity and enable a new generation of remote scientific investigations as well as provide the satellite communication’s industry with disruptive technology not available today. Space laser communications will enable missions to use bandwidth-hungry instruments, such as hyperspectral imagers, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and other instruments with high definition in spectral, spatial, or temporal modes. Laser communication will also make it possible to establish a “virtual presence” at a remote planet or other solar system body, enabling the high-rate communications required by future explorers.
As an example, NASA notes that at current speeds the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), needs around 90 minutes to transmit a single HiRISE high resolution image back to earth. With a laser-based connection, NASA says that same transmission would take roughly five minutes.