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Space-Based Optical Communications presented at Photonics West 2018

Orion_artist_concept_courtesy NASA

An artist concept of Orion satellite, courtesy NASA

On Tuesday 30 January, researchers presented on the status of space-based optical communications projects, including work on upcoming US and European government-sponsored missions. These systems rely on the use of satellites and ground stations to beam information using near-infrared light. Although the technology is still its infancy, it can deliver much faster data rates with lighter, more efficient systems compared to conventional radio communications.

Optical communication potentially has many advantages over conventional radio communication. Radio communications can deliver faster data rates only by increasing power and building larger antennae. In contrast, optical systems have a larger bandwidth, enabling higher data rates with the physical properties of the light itself.

Bryan Robinson of MIT Lincoln Laboratory described a NASA effort called Laser-Enhanced Mission and Navigation Operational Services (LEMNOS) that will be installed in the Orion spacecraft. LEMNOS will be installed on Orion for its first crewed mission in 2022. The system should be able to continuously receive and transmit data for up to an hour a day. With an uplink of 20 megabits per second and a downlink of 80 megabits per second, the optical connection should be more than ten times faster than its radio connection.

Robinson also announced a new NASA demonstration for delivering data to the ground from low earth orbit called Terabyte Infrared Delivery (TBIRD). The system will go on a CubeSat, to launch in 2019. The system is planned to deliver data at 200 gigabits per second.

Frank Heine of Tesat presented on the European Data Relay System, a constellation of satellites that use optical communications to transmit information to the ground. In use today, a low earth orbit satellite in the system beams its information optically to a higher, geosynchronous satellite, which then sends the data to the ground. Used for imaging the oceans and land, the low earth satellite's laser communication link can achieve 1.8 gigabits per second.

Abhijit Biswas of Jet Propulsion Laboratory presented a NASA-led project called Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC). This optical communications system will be launched aboard NASA's robotic Psyche mission, which will visit the eponymous asteroid, with a gravity assist from Mars.

To realize the potential of space-based optical communication many technical hurdles remain. Unlike a radio signal, optical signals must be delivered in a more tightly focused beam. Biswas says that the biggest engineering challenges will be aiming and acquiring the signal.

Space agencies are pursuing the technology for Earth-based applications such as atmospheric monitoring and also for communication with space probes far from our planet. The first missions to Mars and even NASA's long-term 2069 plan to visit Alpha Centauri, the nearest star outside the solar system, will likely require optical communication technology.