News | NASA Demos CubeSat Laser Communications Capability – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

TwoNASA CubeSatsteamed
up on an impromptu optical, or laser, communications pointing experiment. The laser
beam is seen as a brief flash of light close to the center of the focal plane, to
the left of Earth’s horizon.

The light originated from the laser communications
system onboard one of twoOptical Communications and Sensor Demonstration(OCSD)
spacecraft. The laser flash was recorded by a short-wavelength
infrared camera, one of three cameras comprising the CubeSat Multispectral Observation
System (CUMULOS) payload, onboard theIntegrated Solar Array and ReflectarrayAntenna (ISARA) spacecraft. At the time of the demonstration, the
OCSD and ISARA spacecraft were both 280 miles (451 kilometers) above Earth and about
1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) apart.

The optical communications beam was deliberately aimed at and swept
across the ISARA camera. This demonstration shows that an optical crosslink between
two CubeSats is feasible with proper pointing and alignment of the emitting and
receiving spacecraft. Optimizing this capability
could enable constellations of small satellites to transfer high volume data between
one another in low-Earth orbit or even in orbit around theMoon.

Characteristics built into the design and operation of small spacecraft
enable impromptu experiments such as this optical crosslink test. Their flexibility
and responsiveness provide mission operators the ability to take advantage of opportunities
to perform additional maneuvers and procedures not previously envisioned for a particular
mission. Originally designed to be Earth facing, both the ISARA camera and OCSD
laser were tipped onto their “sides” to point at one another to accomplish
this additional crosslink achievement, an operation much more difficult for larger

Other features in this image include a star (R Doradus, one of the
brightest infrared stars in the sky) that can be seen moving diagonally down toward
the right side of the frame as the satellites orbit Earth, and Earth’s horizon as
it meets space. Other subtle stationary points of white are “hot pixels”
or digital noise from the camera.

CUMULOS is an Aerospace Corporation experimental three
camera remote sensing payload hosted on NASA’s ISARA small
spacecraft mission, which was deployed to low-Earth orbit in December 2017. The
ISARA mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The OCSD spacecraft were developed and are operated by The Aerospace Corporation.
The OCSD and ISARA missions are funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology (SST)
program within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

For more information on NASA space technology, please visit:

News Media Contact

Clare Skelly

NASA Headquarters, Washington


[email protected]

Arielle Samuelson

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


[email protected]



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