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Scientists for the first time used a laser to send HD video from deep space to Earth

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For the first time, NASA scientists have used a laser to transmit a high-definition video from deep space back to Earth.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

So what did they choose to mark this moment in space exploration history? Was it something inspiring?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL ARMSTRONG: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

MARTIN: Not quite. What they sent was a cat video.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, this dreamy music plays as a big orange tabby named Taters chases, of course, a laser pointer.

JOBY HARRIS: The team wanted something inspirational but also fun.

MARTIN: Joby Harris is a visual strategist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and he's completely objective because he's also Taters' cat dad.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

HARRIS: We were doing a lot of research, and we discovered that Felix the Cat was this monumental first image on television when television first started breaking out.

MARTÍNEZ: This time, it's laser cat making history. The silliness of the Taters video is the flip side to a mission that NASA says is critical for the future of space exploration.

EMMA WOLLMAN: This is the first time that we're demonstrating optical communication or communication using a laser from distances beyond the moon.

MARTIN: Emma Wollman is an operator at JPL's Deep Space Optical Communications program.

WOLLMAN: We were able to transmit our first video using the laser at a data rate of around 250 megabits per second, so that's faster than a lot of home internet.

MARTÍNEZ: Taters' video was beamed from the Psyche spacecraft, now about 80 times farther from Earth than our moon.

WOLLMAN: Each week, Psyche is moving farther and farther away. So this was a demonstration at 19 million miles, which isn't quite the minimum distance to Mars. Ideally, you'd want to be able to have similar performance from Mars-type distances, and we'll reach those distances in January.

MARTIN: And making it work from that far away could unlock new possibilities in space travel.

WOLLMAN: A lot of the missions that we're sending to space are creating more and more data. And ultimately, if we send humans to space, they'll want to stream back things like video from Mars-type distances. So this would really enable a speedup of 10 to 100 times in data rate from Mars distances.

MARTÍNEZ: I mean, with all that on the line, Harris' Taters almost missed his moment in history.

HARRIS: I was trying to set up lights and cameras in my apartment, and Taters was incredibly uncooperative, wanted nothing to do with the setup. Kicked him out of the room, and I was taking everything down. And I walked into my living room, and Taters was just lounging on my couch. And I sat down with my phone, and I just pointed the laser, and he went nuts and chased the laser. And that was actually the footage that we used in the video.

MARTÍNEZ: For Taters, that's one small paw step for cats, one giant leap for feline kind. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.