Monday NASA announced three technology demonstration missions. One of them is particularly interesting--the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration. If successful, this technology would provide much higher data rates from space probes observing Mars and more distant planets. NASA said the mission will "demonstrate and validate a reliable, capable, and cost effective optical communications technology for infusion into operational near earth and deep space systems."
The laser communications system would be able to transmit data from Mars at data rates of 100 Mbps as compared to the current limit of 6 Mbps for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Except for a drawing of the system, little technical data was provided. It appears a laser-based system will require laser receivers on satellites to convert the optical signals to RF for the final link back to Earth. If this were not done, I imagine that clouds and the atmosphere could interfere with the signal.
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