NASA uses laser to send video of a cat named Taters over 19 million miles


NASA sent ultra-high definition video of a cat named Taters back to Earth from nearly 19 million miles away, the space agency said Monday.

The 15-second cat video was sent to Earth as an experiment for NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications. The space agency hopes to one day be able to stream very high-bandwidth video and other data from deep space, enabling future human missions beyond Earth orbit.

How did a video of Taters the Cat get into space?

While animals, including a cat named Félicette, have actually been in space, Taters is not one of them. A Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee owns the orange tabby, according to NASA.

The video of taters chasing the red dot of a laser pointer was uploaded to NASA’s 1.2 billion Psyche asteroid probe before it was launched in October. Psyche is on a six-year, 2.2 billion kilometer journey to a rare, metal-rich asteroid that may hold clues to how the cores of rocky planets like Earth first formed.

Tater’s video transmission was carried out on December 11 en route to the asteroid.

“One of the goals is to demonstrate the ability to transmit broadband video across millions of miles. Nothing on Psyche generates video data, so we usually send packets of randomly generated test data,” said Bill Klipstein, the tech demo’s project manager at JPL. “But to make this momentous event more memorable, we decided to work with designers at JPL to create a fun video that captures the essence of the demo as part of the Psyche mission.”

How was the video of Taters the Cat sent to Earth?

A piece of equipment called an aircraft laser transceiver was used to transmit the video as an encoded near-infrared laser from Psyche to the Hale telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, California, NASA said.

The record-setting transmission distance is about 80 times the distance between Earth and the moon, and it took just 101 seconds for the laser to reach Earth, NASA said.

NASA workers react to Tater video
Members of NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications team react to the video of the Taters. The high-definition streaming video was sent to Earth via laser from deep space.

NASA/JPL-Caltech


That video was then downloaded and each frame sent to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California where it was played in real time.

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

What does this mean for the future of space exploration?

The video’s successful transmission marks a “historic milestone,” according to NASA. As Psyche continues toward the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, high data rate signals will continue to be beamed back toward Earth. Greater communication capabilities from deep space could help pave the way for sending humans to Mars.

“This achievement underscores our commitment to advancing optical communications as a key element in meeting our future data transmission needs,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Increasing our bandwidth is critical to achieving our future exploration and science goals, and we look forward to the continued development of this technology and the transformation of how we communicate during future interplanetary missions.”


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