NASA's space shuttles may be stationary but the agency continues to race ahead with research and development as they prepare to fly a laser communications system into space to test high definition television from Mars.

The agency has announced that it will be spending $175 million for three space missions that include: a gigantic solar sail, a laser-based communication system, and an atomic clock that will allow precise synchronization with earth, Digital Trends reported.

According to NASA, laser communications could boost space data transmission rates from the equivalent of dial-up Internet speed to Broadband. The three- year mission could pave the way for a communications system to be included on future satellites.

We're looking to bridge the gap to the next era of space communications, lead scientist David Israel, for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center told Discovery News. It's a key way to get us through to the next level of that technology, he said.

Currently space communications depend on radio frequency systems, which limit data transmission rates. According to ZD Net, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has a limit of 6 Mbps taking around 90 minutes to transmit a single high resolution image to earth. A laser communications system could bring the same image back to earth in five minutes.

Another aspect of the project will be to determine how Earth's weather can impact communications and test if data can be stored on space satellites. The spacecraft for this project is set to launch in approximately four years. 

We have to prove without question that the technology is there, it works and that it can be implemented both in space and on the ground, James Reuther, a manager in NASA's technology development office, told Discovery News.