NASA hopes to get humans to Mars at some point in the 2030s, and has already begun its preparations. Construction has now started on a 112-foot dish (34-meter-wide), which workers are building in Goldstone, California, which will eventually form part of an array of telescopes.
NASA has classically relied on radio waves to communicate with its machines throughout the solar system, but these waves take an average of 13 minutes to travel what can be up to 271 million mile journey to the Red Planet – depending on where Earth and Mars are in their respective orbits.
This could prove to be too long if hypothetically astronauts on Mars are in the midst of an emergency.
Lasers however provide almost instantaneous communication, and also allow for much larger data sets to be transferred.
The project is part of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) and the space agency described the satellite, called DSS-23, as “critical” for future Mars missions.
NASA said: “While DSS-23 will function as a radio antenna, it will also be equipped with mirrors and a special receiver for lasers beamed from distant spacecraft.
“This technology is critical for sending astronauts to places like Mars.
“Humans there will need to communicate with Earth more than NASA’s robotic explorers do, and a Mars base, with its life support systems and equipment, would buzz with data that needs to be monitored.”
Larry James, deputy director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said: “The DSN is Earth’s one phone line to our two Voyager spacecraft — both in interstellar space — all our Mars missions, and the New Horizons spacecraft that is now far past Pluto.
READ MORE: Moon landing: NASA chief confident humans will land again by 2024