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Demand for increased capacity in deep-space to Earth communications systems continues to rise as sensor data rates climb and mission requirements expand. Optical free-space laser communications systems offer the potential for operating at data rates 10 to 1000 times that of current radio-frequency systems. A key element in an optical communications system is the Earth receiver. This paper reviews the design of a distributed photon-counting receiver array composed of four meter-class telescopes, developed as a part of the mars laser communications demonstration (MLCD) project. This design offers a cost-effective and adaptable alternative approach to traditional large, single-aperture receive elements while preserving the expected improvement in data rates enabled by free-space laser communications systems. Key challenges in developing distributed receivers and details of the MLCD design are discussed.