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A NASA cat video in deep space just did something very special

NASA has achieved an impressive first by streaming an ultra-HD video to Earth by laser from 19 million miles away.

“This will pave the way for higher-data-rate communications in support of the next giant leap: sending humans to Mars,” the space agency said in a social media post on Monday announcing the feat.

The footage was created here on Earth before being sent to deep space with NASA’s Psyche mission, which launched in October. It features a cat named Taters chasing a laser pointer because … well … everyone loves a cat video. And here it is:

The Video NASA’s Laser Communications Experiment Streamed From Deep Space

NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications experiment beamed the 15-second video from deep space to Earth on December 11 from 19 million miles away (31 million kilometers, or about 80 times the Earth-moon distance). Using a cutting-edge instrument called a flight laser transceiver, NASA said the video signal took 101 seconds to reach Earth, sent at the system’s maximum bit rate of 267 megabits per second (Mbps).

The instrument beamed an encoded near-infrared laser to the Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California, where it was downloaded before being immediately sent, frame by frame, to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, where the video was played in real time.

The laser communications technology can transmit data at rates 10 to 100 times greater than the best radio frequency systems currently used by deep space missions.

“One of the goals is to demonstrate the ability to transmit broadband video across millions of miles,” said Bill Klipstein, the tech demo’s project manager at JPL. “Nothing on Psyche generates video data, so we usually send packets of randomly generated test data. But to make this significant event more memorable, we decided to work with designers at JPL to create a fun video, which captures the essence of the demo as part of the Psyche mission.”

Pam Melroy, NASA deputy administrator, said the accomplishment “underscores our commitment to advancing optical communications as a key element to meeting our future data transmission needs.” Melroy added that increasing the bandwidth for communications from deep space is “essential to achieving our future exploration and science goals, and we look forward to the continued advancement of this technology and the transformation of how we communicate during future interplanetary missions.”

Ryan Rogalin, the project’s receiver electronics lead at JPL, pointed out that although the video was transmitted from millions of miles away in deep space, the technology was able to send the video “faster than most broadband internet connections,” adding: “In fact, after receiving the video at Palomar, it was sent to JPL over the internet, and that connection was slower than the signal coming from deep space.”

For those interested more in the video’s graphics than the cat, the former illustrates things such as Psyche’s orbital path, Palomar’s telescope dome, and technical information about the laser and its data bit rate. And for those interested more in the cat, you can see data linked to Tater’s heart rate, color, and breed.

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Trevor Mogg
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