Military Embedded Systems

Miniature optical communications demonstrated by NASA CubeSat in orbit


October 22, 2015

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

EL SEGUNDO, California. The Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) CubeSat spacecraft from NASA and The Aerospace Corp., is now in orbit and operational and ready to demonstrate optical communications in space.

OCSD differs from other space-based laser communication systems as the laser is hard-mounted to the spacecraft body, and the orientation of the CubeSat actually controls the direction of the beam, according to NASA. This makes the laser system more compact than anything that has flown before in space. The CubeSat will evaluate the ability to point a small satellite accurately as it demonstrates data transfer by laser at rates of as fast as 200 Mb/s -- a factor of 100 increase over current high-end CubeSat communications systems.

OCSD was launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It is the first in a new series of six NASA-managed technology demonstration missions expected to launch during the coming months using CubeSats to test technologies that can show new uses for these miniature satellites, which measure 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm (about 4 inches per side). NASA, other government agencies, academia, and commercial companies can integrate these technologies, which range from high-speed communications to novel propulsion systems to technologies that enable rendezvous and docking, into future space missions.

"Technology demonstration missions like OCSD are driving exploration," says Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "By improving the communication capability of small spacecraft to support data-intensive science missions, OCSD will advance the potential to become a more viable option for mission planners."

The second OCSD mission, which is scheduled to launch no earlier than Feb. 1, will utilize two CubeSats to demonstrate the ability to maneuver small spacecraft in close proximity to one another via low-cost sensors and a new propulsion system that uses water as a propellant. This technology can improve the ability of small spacecraft to work in coordination with other satellites to explore planets, asteroids, and moons, as well as inspecting other spacecraft.

Also aboard the Atlas V were four CubeSats chosen via the CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) as part of the Educational Launch of Nanosatellite (ELaNa) XII mission. The satellites deployed from their protective cases and are now in orbit. The CubeSats' transmitters turned on, and ground stations listened for their beacons to determine the small satellites' functionality. These CubeSats will then test new small satellite control and communications systems, Earth observations, amateur radio communications, and an X-Band radio science transponder.

CSLI gives innovators from non-profit organizations, educational institutions and NASA-sponsored missions an accessible way to participate in space exploration. ELaNa missions, which are managed by the Launch Services Program at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, enable a ride-share opportunity for CubeSats selected through CSLI.

NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology Program (SSTP) within STMD funds the OCSD project. The Aerospace Corp. built and operates the OCSD spacecraft. The SSTP office at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, manages the OCSD project for STMD.

For more information about NASA's CubeSats, visit: For more information about NASA's space technology, visit: For more on NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology Program, visit:


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