We Asked a NASA Technologist: How Do We Communicate With Spacecraft?

Communication Satellite

NASA uses a global network of antennas and satellites to communicate with spacecraft primarily via radio waves. Additionally, it’s advancing laser communication technology to transmit data at higher rates, with ongoing projects like the LCRD and TBIRD. This technology is planned for use in future missions, including the Artemis lunar mission.

How do we communicate with spacecraft?

We communicate with spacecraft in a lot of different ways.

We have a network of antennas all over the world across all seven continents, along with satellites in space that help transmit these radio waves.

Astronauts, mission controllers, and scientists rely on this network to transmit messages and commands and receive data such as never before seen images of our solar system and universe.

Spacecraft in orbit can only communicate directly to ground stations on Earth if the satellite has a clear view of the ground station, which typically only occurs for a short period of time.

The tracking and data relay satellites, or TDRS, are a fleet of specialized communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit. These satellites relay data from other spacecraft to ground stations, allowing NASA to provide near-continuous global communications coverage to missions in low-Earth orbit.

How do we communicate with spacecraft? For decades, satellites have beamed data back to Earth by way of radio waves, with a network of ground-based antennas collecting the incoming information. Now, we’re exploring laser communications, technology that will allow us to receive more data from farther than ever before — faster, too. NASA space communications expert Risha George tells us more. Credit: NASA

NASA is also developing ways to communicate with invisible infrared lasers.

Laser communications offer missions higher data rates than ever before, allowing us to transmit more data at once.

One mission doing that now is the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration or LCRD. LCRD will work with the International Space Station, allowing more science and exploration data so we can continue making discoveries about our planet.

We also have a demonstration called TBIRD, which is testing laser communications with huge bursts of data from a small satellite in low-Earth orbit.

And in the future, NASA plans to use laser communications when humans return to the Moon with Artemis.

So how do we communicate with spacecraft? Mostly via radio waves between space and ground. But NASA is pushing the boundaries with laser communications to be able to receive more data from further than ever before.

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