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Japan researchers use microsatellite to send photons to Earth

NASA

A team of Japanese researchers has sent infrared photons from a microsatellite to Earth in hopes they can one day be used to quickly communicate over vast distances, according to Wired.

Why it matters: Laser communication could allow more information to be transmitted faster and microsatellites — weighing about 100 pounds and costing roughly $2 million— are cheaper to launch, potentially opening space-based communication up to companies that don't currently have the resources to operate there.

What they did: The team, led by Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology physicist Masahide Sasaki, shot infrared laser beams from a satellite at a Tokyo suburb. Their vision is that one day the infrared photons could transmit information and replace today's radio waves, which can carry a limited amount of information. Messages carried by laser could potentially transfer million times more data per second, Sasaki told Wired. The challenge: Over long distances (to other planets, for example) only a few photons will arrive at the destination. The Japanese team and others — including physicists working on China's Micius satellite who conducted a similar experiment last month — are working on ways to quickly detect photons but currently Sasaki's team can "only detect about one in every hundred million photons sent from the satellite."

Go deeper: Todd Harrison, a space security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Wired the U.S. military may "be able to use a laser-beaming sat to communicate with drones." Additionally, the small size of them could allow for more to be launched.