In 2014, an instrument designed to speed up the flow of information between Earth and space via laser communications was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft. Its destination? The International Space Station.
The instrument was OPALS – a catchier abbreviation for the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science.
The OPALS has two hardware systems: the flight system, which sends the laser downlinks from the ISS, and the ground system, which helps the flight system know where to point and receive its downlinks.
The mission ran for three months and was a success, proving that space-to-ground laser communications were much faster than radio signals.
As a bonus, OPALS collected a huge amount of data to advance the science of sending lasers through the atmosphere.