While many cats are “internet famous,” an orange tabby named Taters may be the first to become “outer space famous.” NASA successfully transmitted a video of the cat to Earth from nearly 19 million miles away—about 80 times the distance between the Earth and the moon, the agency said in a statement this week.
The experiment is a “historic milestone” in allowing humans to send visual communications from beyond Earth’s orbit, according to NASA. The agency hopes the technology will enable future astronauts to beam videos back from Mars or beyond.
Ryan Rogalin, the project’s receiver electronics lead at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), says the playful, 15-second video—in which Taters chases a laser—took less than two minutes to reach Earth in ultra-high definition, faster than most broadband internet connections, per the statement.
“What we’ve done is taken this technology that’s been used in satellites orbiting near Earth and around the moon… and extended that range out to deep space,” Malcolm Wright, flight laser lead at JPL, tells Justine McDaniel of the Washington Post. “This demonstration we just did… is really showing the ability of the technology.”
Taters himself, to be clear, has not gone to space. Researchers filmed and uploaded a video of the 3-year-old cat to a flight laser transceiver on NASA’s $1.2 billion Psyche spacecraft prior to its launch in October, per Aliza Chasan of CBS News. The spacecraft then used a near-infrared laser to send the cat video to the Hale Telescope at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, with the data contained in the oscillations of the light waves.
The Psyche mission aims to reach the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter over a six-year expedition to study a metal-rich asteroid called 16 Psyche, which may contain clues on how the rocky cores of planets like Earth first formed. The 2.2-billion-mile length of its expedition made the spacecraft an ideal conduit for this test, a part of the agency’s Deep Space Optical Communications experiment.
Taters’ space video debut marked the first of several experiments the project has planned with Psyche: Each week, scientists will attempt to transmit video communication again as the spacecraft gets farther from Earth, until it reaches a distance similar to Mars in mid-2024.
“The biggest thing now is to show the reliability and the robustness,” Wright tells the Washington Post. “So, it’s not just a novelty, a one-off, but it can be a workhorse. We want to show the capability.”
Designers at NASA debated what video would be both meaningful and fun to use in the transmission. The clip of the kitty initially served as a placeholder. But they soon realized the charming video both honored Felix the Cat, the cartoon character often used to test television broadcast transmissions in the early 1900s, and highlighted the laser technology used for transmission.
The overlaid graphics in the video show data including Psyche’s orbital path, technical details about the laser and the words “This is a test,” as well as Taters’s heart rate, color and pattern.
Communications with infrared lasers can contain much more information than the radio waves NASA uses for most other missions. Fiber-optic internet utilizes the same technology.
But aiming the laser to its receiving station from so far away required an extraordinary degree of precision. To guide Psyche’s communication with Earth, JPL’s Table Mountain Facility in California produced a strong laser signal, which “acts as a beacon,” write Morgan McFall-Johnsen and Erin Snodgrass for Business Insider.
“It’s a very narrow beam; at the distance that Psyche is right now, it covers only a few hundred kilometers,” JPL’s Abhijit Biswas relays to New Scientist’s Matthew Sparkes. “So, if you mispoint it ever so slightly, you’ll be in the Pacific Ocean or somewhere else. You’ll completely miss. So that was something there was a lot of anxiety over.”
While the transmission was a success, Taters may be a one-hit wonder—the cat will no longer feature in future experiments, according to the Associated Press. However, he has played a critical part in making NASA’s achievement a little more delightful.
“Communicating via light is pretty complex, but how do you get people talking about it? You just get people talking about things that they normally talk about,” NASA visual strategist Joby Harris, who owns Taters, says to the Washington Post. “Art is simply… building bridges of complex things to as many people as possible—and I can’t think of anything that would do that more than, perhaps, cats.”
Taters now joins a small but preeminent cohort of space animals, including Félicette, the first cat in space.