Watch the video NASA transmitted to Earth on a laser beam

The space agency says the achievement is like "a person aiming a laser pointer at the end of a human hair 30 feet away and keeping it there while walking."

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco

OPALS, a payload attached to the International Space Station, is super fast and super accurate. Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

Hitting a target 260 miles away with a laser beam while traveling at 17,500 mph might not be something you or I could do, but for NASA, it's just another day in space.

That's what a new laser communications instrument named the Optical Payload for Lasercom Science (OPALS) just achieved. It sent a video titled "Hello, World!" from the International Space Station to the Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory ground station at the Table Mountain Observatory in Wrightwood, Calif. The video, which is about 37 seconds long, took 3.5 seconds to transmit, which is much faster than previous downlink methods.

"We collect an enormous amount of data out in space, and we need to get it all to the ground," said Matt Abrahamson, OPALS mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a video about the achievement (below). "This is an alternative that's much faster than our traditional radio waves that we use to communicate back down to the ground."

Abrahamson said that the video, which is a lively montage of various communication methods, got its title as an homage to the first message output by standard computer programs.

"It's incredible to see this magnificent beam of light arriving from our tiny payload on the space station," he added. "We look forward to experimenting with OPALS over the coming months in hopes that our findings will lead to optical communications capabilities for future deep space exploration missions."