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Space X rocket en route to ISS with space laser cargo

A Space X Falcon rocket lifted off Friday afternoon for the International Space Station (ISS) from the Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida.

The mission is the third commercial resupply flight for Space X to the ISS and part of NASA’s push to use private launch companies for routine space flight.

The Dragon cargo capsule that sat atop the Falcon rocket was successfully deployed into space about 10 minutes after the 3:25 p.m. Eastern time launch. It is scheduled to dock with the ISS on Sunday.

Dragon is carrying more than 2 tons of cargo and experiments including several cubesat micro satellites and a pair of legs for the Robonaut robot on the ISS. It will also carry four HD cameras that will be placed on the ISS for streaming live video of the Earth on the Internet.

One of the most interesting items of cargo is NASA’s Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) test bed, which will test the feasibility of using a laser to transmit data from space to Earth.

Data and video links from the ISS and other NASA spacecraft to Earth are currently carried over radio waves, but the use of a laser could mean much greater bandwidth. NASA says OPALS could realize speeds of around 50Mbps, about the same or faster than that available on many home broadband connections.

The OPALS unit will be robotically taken from the Space X Dragon capsule and mounted onto the exterior of the space station. Once in place, it will begin a three-month mission that will consist of a series of 100-second long tests.

Each will begin when a ground station fires a laser beam towards the OPALS module on the ISS. When that is detected, the unit will use it to lock onto the ground station and fire up its own laser to send back data modulated on the laser beam.

The eventual goal of the tests is a multi-gigabit per second data communications system.

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