The first in-space tests under NASA’s new advanced technology push will involve laser communications for high-data-rate links to deep-space probes, a space-qualified atomic clock to make the laser links even more efficient, and the largest solar sail yet flown.

The U.S. space agency plans to spend $175 million over the next four years, if Congress appropriates that amount, on the first three Technology Demonstration Missions (TDMs) funded under the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT).

The space demos — all piggybacked on other spacecraft — were picked from 47 proposals of missions that hold promise for “infusing” technology that is not available today into government and commercial space missions anticipated in the near term.

“TDM matures advanced space technologies that are of benefit to multiple customers through flight-readiness and mission infusion,” says Bonnie James, TDM program executive in the office of NASA Chief Technologist Bobby Braun. “So the program really focuses on demonstrating and infusing new space technologies.”

The Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, with Goddard Space Flight Center’s David Israel as principal investigator, will take about four years to prepare a piggyback experiment that would mount a laser-comms package on a scheduled spacecraft — possibly a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) replenishment bird — for two years of on-orbit demonstrations.

The technology would enable transmission of a Mars image from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (Hirise) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in about 10 min., instead of the hour and a half required with today’s radio frequency communications.

To make data dumps from spacecraft using laser-comms technology even more efficient than the order-of-magnitude improvement NASA expects from it, the agency will also fund the flight of a miniaturized mercury-ion atomic clock piggybacked on an Iridium low Earth orbit communications satellite to gauge its navigation performance against the Earth-orbiting Global Positioning System.

With highly accurate atomic clocks mounted on distant spacecraft, a laser-equipped upgrade of the Deep Space Network would be able to find and connect to them and begin taking data much more rapidly.

The clock demonstration will last for about a year, and be ready to go in three years. The Space Communications and Navigation office in the new Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate will collaborate with the OCT on both the clock and the laser-comms demos.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will work with NASA and L’Garde Inc., of Tustin, Calif., on the solar sail demonstration, which will gauge the ability of a large sail to use pressure from the solar wind to station-keep at a point between Earth and the Sun with an early warning payload to alert operators of sensitive terrestrial systems of approaching solar storms.

Measuring 38-by-38 meters, the sail will be the largest ever flown, and will carry hardware designed to demonstrate that it can be deployed and controlled. Nathan Barnes of L’Garde is the principal investigator.

“The small sails that have been demonstrated to date are just proof of concept to see that a sail can be deployed, and that you could actually get it to work and propel yourself,” says James Reuther, director of the OCT crosscutting capability demonstrations division. “This concept takes it much further than that. It actually deploys a sail that’s big enough to actually enable a mission.”