A group of researchers from NASA, MIT, and other institutions have achieved the fastest space-to-ground laser-communication link yet — 200 gigabits per second — between a satellite in orbit and Earth, the highest data rate ever achieved by optical communications technology.

These data rates are made possible by using laser communications, which packs information into the oscillations of light waves in lasers, instead of using radio waves like most space communications systems.

This communications link was achieved by the TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) system, carried into orbit by NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) satellite, and surpasses the previous 100 Gbps milestone previously demonstrated by the same team in June 2022.

With this speedy connection, TBIRD can send down multiple terabytes of test data to Earth during a single six-minute pass over a ground station. A single terabyte is the equivalent of about 500 hours of high-definition video.

“Achieving 100 Gbps in June was groundbreaking, and now we’ve doubled that data rate — this capability will change the way we communicate in space,” said Beth Keer, the mission manager for TBIRD at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

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“Just imagine the power of space science instruments when they can be designed to fully take advantage of the advancements in detector speeds and sensitivities, furthering what artificial intelligence can do with huge amounts of data. Laser communications are the missing link that will enable the scientific discoveries of the future,” he added.

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Currently, the most commonly used technology by NASA for space communications is radio, sending data with similar methods to how radio broadcasts are sent to a car radio or how a cell phone communicates with a cell tower.

With NASA planning for a long-term presence on the Moon and future missions to Mars, more efficient communications are essential for smooth mission operations and effective science.

The ultra-high-speed capabilities of laser communications, also known as optical communications, will make it possible to pack more data into each transmission from space.

CubeSats like PTD-3 are ideal spacecraft for testing communications technologies due to their cost-effectiveness and small size. PTD-3 is only about the size of two stacked cereal boxes, and the TBIRD payload it carries is no larger than the average tissue box.

PTD-3 was launched into orbit on SpaceX’s Transporter-5 rideshare mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and synchronized with Earth’s orbit around the Sun in such a way that the small satellite entered a “fixed” position relative to the Sun.

That means PTD-3 is able to pass over the ground station on Earth at the same time twice each day so TBIRD can test this space-to-ground communications link.