back to article NASA beams vid from space via laser

NASA has pulled off an impressive bit of space data transfer by beaming a 175 meg hi-def video from the International Space Station to the ground via laser. The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) experiment used a 2.5W 1,550nm laser to beam the vid earthwards in just 3.5 seconds, a feat which "would have taken …


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  1. Graham Marsden

    Yes, but....

    ... it's insignificant compared to the power of The Force...

  2. Benchops

    "equivalent to

    a person aiming a laser pointer at the end of a human hair 30 feet away and keeping it there while walking"

    It's not really equivalent to that, because if it was it wouldn't actually have worked.

    1. sisk Silver badge

      Re: "equivalent to

      Such is usually the case when NASA says something is "equivalent to" or "as hard as" something else. Nonetheless it's rather an impressive achievement. Think about it for a second. They're hitting a small target from 250 miles away with a relative velocity of 17,100mph. While a human holding a laser pointer and training it on the end of a human hair while walking is basically impossible it's not a wholly inaccurate simile for what they've done here.

      1. Benchops

        Re: "equivalent to

        I reckon it's equivalent to some very high tech and expensive equipment "holding" a laser pointer and training it on the end of a very predictably positioned human hair whilst travelling smoothly in a predictable direction.

      2. oldcoder

        Re: "equivalent to

        Not the same at all.

        First neither platform has random movement.

        Second, the target is using a laser beam to provide a target.

        Now if the ISS were changing location (vertically) by 40/50 miles every few seconds... it wouldn't have worked either.

        1. Acme Fixer

          Re: "equivalent to

          I disagree about the random movement. You see, we Southern Californians know about Wrightwood. It lies directly over the San Andreas Fault which periodically has very random movements! We have many earthquakes everyday, most of them being less than 3 magnitude which no one even feels. But I'm sure it affects the laser beam. I just wonder why they chose such a seismically active area for the equipment.

  3. D@v3

    So, basically an orbiting laser platform?

    Good work people, carry on.

  4. Matt_payne666

    Aiming laser pointer at the end of a human hair for 30 seconds??? That's quite accurate...

    Doing the sums in my head, that means its possible to manicure a bikini-line from space! Now that Id watch..........

    1. Steven Jones

      Wildly misleading NASA claim. This is why...

      NASA's claim is wholly misleading. A 1 metre diameter receiving dish might well subtend approximately the same angle as the diameter of a human hair at 30 feet, but that's not the most important factor. What is far more important is the degree of divergence of the laser beam, which you can guarantee is far more than a metre by the time it hits the Earth's surface.

      Human hair isn't a great standard measure, as the size varies a lot. However, if we take 2/1000th of an inch, it will subtend an angle of about 5 micro-radians. To a good degree of approximation, laser beam divergence depends on the minimum (waist) diameter of the beam and the (1,500nm) wavelength. If we take a reasonable beam "waist diameter" of 1mm, that gives a beam radial divergence angle of about 470 micro-radians. In other words, the degree of precision required is, perhaps, only about 1/100th of that claimed. Also, of course, the ISS moves in a rather smoother, and predictable manner than a human being walking.

      To put this in perspective, it's reckoned that competition level target rifles can manage accuracies as high as 100 micro-radians, albeit, not hand held of course.

      Plug in the minimum ISS orbital height of the 350km, and you get a beam diameter of about 160 metres, so the receiver only has to be in that area. Of course the transmission was likely at a considerably greater distance than the minimum ISS orbital height, but then that doesn't change the degree of accuracy required.

      ps. sorry about the mixed units, but that's NASA for you, quoting wavelengths in nm and distances in feet. You'd have thought by now, having crashed a probe due to mixing up systems, they'd have stuck with the metric system.

  5. BristolBachelor Gold badge

    I think that the performance improvement is oversold. It seems to me that the reception of this video over RF in the UK would've taken 10 minutes, whereas the reception of light from space, passing through the atmosphere would've taken from 2 days to 2 weeks, depending on your luck with the weather.

  6. Arachnoid

    Hardly secure coms

    Given the laser cone overlap but a good start so a beam sent from Mars would probably be near as big as the Earth by the time it reached here

    1. MrXavia

      Re: Hardly secure coms

      More secure than radio... While in theory radio is directional, in practice beams are quite wide, lasers are more directional...

  7. Phil E Succour

    Good start chaps

    Now all we need to do is get the sharks up to the ISS...

  8. Elmer Phud Silver badge

    in other news . . .

    Scientists test laser beam from space!

    'Death ray deveoplments are of concern' says aluminium foil manufacturer.

    1. Martin Budden

      Re: in other news . . .

      Just wear your aluminium foil hat with the shiny side up.

  9. Simon Harris Silver badge

    Artist's impression.

    Wow - I never realised that LEO was such a dusty place that a laser beam would show up so well, or that artists could see well into the infra red!

    1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge

      Re: Artist's impression.

      Artist's impression of OPALS' beam wandering. ==>

      Artists seem to be such impressionable people. Perhaps the wrong kind of artist was chosen to render an impression. Next time, they should use, I don't know, a mime. Yes, a mime! At least the lack of sound would be accurate, because in space, no-one can hear you scream...

    2. Euripides Pants Silver badge

      Re: Artist's impression.

      "or that artists could see well into the infra red"

      Consume the right stuff and its amazing what you'll see...

  10. Billa Bong

    Hang on...

    Can I dob them into the feds for lazing a space station following their recent campaign?

    Or even better, can we employ similar technology to return-laze the nutters who do it to aircraft?

    1. brooxta

      Re: Hang on...

      I'm more concerned that those hooligans on the International Space Station just lased the earth (though, in mitigation, they were aiming at California).

      OT: Any word on what the video in question was? Inquiring minds want to know. My vote goes to "A video about a video being lased down to California".

      1. wdmot

        Re: Hang on...

        The video beamed was, apparently a '"Hello, World!" video message'.

        175 megabits, so they achieved 50 megabits per second. Not bad, better than most people's broadband connection.

  11. Dr Who

    My thoughts exactly. Looks more like a pretty untalented unenthusiastic bloke with a copy of Photoshop's impression than an artist's impression to me.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I for one....

    >>Matt Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, enthused: "It's incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station."

    Well, Matt, us mere meatbags will never know the pleasure of seeing wavelengths beyond 800nm, so you don't have to rub it in.

    Cyborgs, they can act so f'n superior at times.

  13. DragonLord

    So now all we need to do is set up a token ring network around the sun...

    1. Alistair Silver badge

      Solar token rings

      I see what you did there.

      And the mental somersault I did to get there (considering 10Ge switching setup for backbone of a data platform) may just set this project back about 4 weeks.

  14. Nunyabiznes


    I wonder when the coppers will arrive with the cuffs and a piracy notice?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    But tell us, how did NASA get the frickin' shark up there?

    1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Re: Interesting...

      Sadly, they had to pay the Russians to lift the shark.

      1. Oldfogey

        Very Interesting...........but Stoopid.

        But were they able to jump it themselves?

  16. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Totally upside down

    Looking at the NASA promo video - the laser was actually on the ground and the orbital payload was an ultra-precisely-wobbling mirror to modulate and reflect the carrier beam back to Earth...

    P.S. Actually, it looks like both the ground and the flight systems use their own lasers, with the ground beam being used for aiming the flight laser...

  17. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    MPAA & Sony says

    Copying an HD video in 3.5 seconds? Surely that only has illegal uses.

  18. ian 22

    Traditional? Really?

    When I read "10 minutes using traditional downlink methods", I realized I must be getting old. I'd not realized the Space Age was so far along that anything about it could be considered traditional.

    It's "ye olde downlink method".

  19. oldcoder

    Make some money...

    Report them for aiming that laser at an airplane :)

    After all, the beam will spread out... and there HAD to be an airplane SOMEWHERE in that cone of light.

  20. Rustident Spaceniak

    That's soooo 2007!

    Not wanting to spoil their enthusiasm, but considering that the German space research center managed a laser comms linke between two orbiting satellites back in 2008, and achieved a data rate of some 5.6 Gigabits/s, I'd say what NASA did just now is a bit old hat.

    Of course, ESA has taken this a step further and they're now using laser comms terminals via a relay saetellite, so you don't even need to be overhead California anymore to laze someone there:

    Of course, if the astronauts in the ISS had hand-pointe that beam, it'd be something completely different...

  21. Faux Science Slayer

    this why the SETI alien radio monitor is a JOKE....

    Known as the "Hall Effect"....reversing the polarity of a polarized light beam causes INSTANTANEOUS reversal of polarity at the source and at the terminal end. Having a positive and negative poles gives two positions for a digital transmission. Searching for ancient technology broadcasts using speed of light radio signals, like SETI has been doing for thirty years, is like looking for Native American smoke signals. Higher conscious life forms use a more rapid form of communication. See Cosmology at FauxScienceSlayer for more interesting expansions of your conscious.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Hall Effect

      Is not what you think it is.

    2. nagyeger

      Re: this why the SETI alien radio monitor is a JOKE....

      Reversing the polarity of an oscillating EM field... Instead of going up-down it's going down-up now?? I can see that carrying a lot of data.

  22. Acme Fixer

    Not as accurate as..

    I think the news helicopters have this one beat. They have a camera with a super long zoom lens that has to cope with vibrations in 3 dimensions, yet can zoom in from 500 meters altitude and lock on to a nearly vibrationless view of a person on the ground and easily tell if he's holding a pistol or a microphone. And they don't have any laser beam to guide them.

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