Space Daily reported on Sunday that NASA is preparing to test a new kind of communications modem that works with a new technology called photonics. The idea is that like most microchips and circuits use electrons to work, a device using photonics uses light. If the technology can be made to work, it will change just about every form of technology, from computers, to telecommunications, to medical imaging. The User Modem and Amplifier (ILLUMA) will serve as a terminal on board the International Space Station for NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, or LCRD experiment.
The International Year of Light page defines photonics thus:
“Photonics is the science and technology of generating, controlling, and detecting photons, which are particles of light. Photonics underpins technologies of daily life from smartphones to laptops to the Internet to medical instruments to lighting technology. The 21st century will depend as much on photonics as the 20th century depended on electronics.”
The reason NASA is interested in photonics is that much of what the space agency does involves transmitting data across vast distances. Current technology, using electronics and radio frequencies, are agonizing slow. The slow pace is one reason why the New Horizons space probe is spending months returning data and images it garnered from its brief encounter with Pluto on July 2015. While some technology use light transmitted through fiber optic cables, photonics would integrate light transmission right into the circuit board.
If photonics technology can be made to work in space, it will revolutionize telecommunications. Communications satellites will transmit data, sound, and images to ground stations 10 to 100 times faster than is currently the case. Space probes ranging into deep space will return data at a similar rate, transmitting more science at higher speeds. Scientists will be able to study weather on alien worlds in real time, much like weather satellites do on Earth.
The ILLUMA experiment is scheduled to be deployed on the ISS starting around 2020.