Video: NASA's first laser-sent message from deep space is (of course) a cat video

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That’s one small leap for a cat, one giant pounce for feline-kind.

This week, NASA announced a new record in space, as it used a laser communication system (rather than old-fashioned radio waves) to transmit a high-definition, 15-second video across more than 31 million kilometres of deep space, or more than 80 times the distance to the moon.

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It’s the first time such a system has been used beyond the Earth-moon system. And the video in question was of a cat chasing a laser pointer.

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The video was beamed to Earth by the Psyche probe, which launched on Oct. 13 and is on its way to rendezvous with and study an asteroid of the same name in 2029. The space laser transmitter – officially Deep Space Optical Communications, or DSOC – was carried along as an experimental technology, in addition to standard radio communications equipment.

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“One of the goals is to demonstrate the ability to transmit broadband video across millions of miles,” said Bill Klipstein, the DSOC project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Nothing on Psyche generates video data, so we usually send packets of randomly generated test data.”

But, he added: “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.”

Thus the cat, an orange tabby whose name is Taters and who is the pet of another JPL employee. Taters is seen chasing a laser light on a couch, overlaid with test graphics, which include Psyche’s orbital path, an image of Palomar Observatory (the receiving site) and technical information about the laser, as well as the cat’s heart rate, colour and breed.

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The new communications link is designed to transmit data at rates 10 to 100 times faster than the best radio systems used by deep space missions today.

“Despite transmitting from millions of miles away, it was able to send the video faster than most broadband Internet connections,” said Ryan Rogalin, the project’s receiver electronics lead at JPL. “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.”

The faster transmission rate should prove useful in supporting complex missions such as sending humans to Mars, the space agency said. The ultra-HD video took 101 seconds to send to Earth at the system’s maximum bit rate of 267 megabits per second.

That’s several times faster than most home broadband connections, and more than a thousand times faster than the Voyager spacecraft, which were launched ion 1977 and are now on the outskirts of the solar system. They transmit at a rate of 160 bits per second – or rather, they do when they’re working. Recently, the decades-old Voyager 1 probe suffered a glitch, and scientists are still trying to send commands that will fix it.

There’s a historical link to the cat video as well. In 1928, RCA/NBC began testing its early television broadcast equipment with an image of a statue of Felix the cartoon cat. And at the dawn of the age of film, Thomas Edison made a short motion picture of two cats boxing.

Cats doing funny things has since spread across the Earth and is clearly now on track to take over the rest of the solar system, one planet at a time.

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