The Rise of Optical Communications in Space
Rapid advancements in space technology mean that satellites are gathering and transmitting more data than ever, with traditional radio frequency (RF) communication systems no longer being able to provide the bandwidth required to do so.
The rise of optical (or laser) communications for space applications is set to provide a solution to current limitations of RF technology. However, this is not to say there are not also some challenges that need to be addressed before the technology can become fully-fledged within the sector.
What are the benefits of optical communications?
Optical communications come with many benefits. The first, and perhaps most important, is speed. Optical communications are able to provide around 40 times higher data rates that RF, with these higher bandwidths enabling mission data to be downloaded using shorter contact times.
As they require less power compared to RF systems, optical communication terminals are smaller and therefore lighter. Reduced weight of communications systems results in enabling larger capacity for other scientific instruments onboard the spacecraft. Lightweighting can also make the mission less expensive.
Another critical benefit of optical communications if that compared to RF equipment, they use much narrower beams making them more secure. This is due to their smaller footprint leading to a reduced chance of being intercepted. Security is of paramount importance for a large portion of space service users, such as military and government applications.
The final benefit of using optical communications is that they provide flexibility. This is because they make it possible to build lower-cost ground segments for LEO missions, which can be located at data centers or mission sites. This decreases costs by reducing ground data transmission costs as well as merging the operations of a mission.
So, what’s stopping us from using the technology more widely?
The narrow beam, despite making optical communication more secure, is also somewhat of a downfall. This smaller beam has to be directly pointed at a receiver, and so it requires extreme precision when the signal is being pointed. If this isn’t achieved, the target will not be reached. Beacons close to receivers which spacecraft can lock on to are being developed by Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) to mitigate this issue.
Furthermore, another key challenge in optical communications is the weather. Clouds, fog and disruptive atmospheric weather can interrupt signals from the laser, but there are viable solutions being explored. One way to resolve this is through having multiple ground stations, so that if one cannot be reached, the signal can be redirected to the next one, and so on.
A promising future
Given how effective optical communications in space are, it’s no surprise that the market forecast is predicted to reach 4.1 billion USD by 2030, with a CAFG of 26.98%.
The development of space-based optical communications has been supported by NASA for some years now, who have carried out various demonstrations with the technology over the last decade or so. Currently, their Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) is sending data to and from ground stations, with the goal to send data to space users over laser.
The agency is also carrying out other activities to support the development of optical communications, such as partnerships with private space companies to improve hardware used in laser communications systems.
The commercial value of this technology is being further bolstered by a number of private organizations, such as Airbus Defense & Space, Mynaric, Xenesis and Warpspace, who are pioneering the use of laser communications over traditional RF systems. This activity and interest will likely be a catalyst for future innovation and the establishment of this sub-sector of the industry.
Commenting on the development of the technology, Justin Luczyk, Director of Spacecraft Equipment at Airbus U.S. Space & Defence, said [link to speaker interview], “It’s been an interesting journey. A decade or so ago, optical communications was predominantly a focus of organizations such as NASA and ESA. However, the overall market shift to low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellations, drove the need for satellite-to-satellite connectivity where traditional ground stations were impracticable or impossible. This drove a renewed focus on optical, as it could provide capabilities far beyond RF-crosslinks.”
Despite some remaining challenges which need to be overcome, the growing need for optical communications in LEO and GEO applications over the next five or more years makes this particular area of the sector one to keep an eye on.
Technology and industry experts will be coming together to discuss the innovations, challenges, and opportunities of optical communication for terrestrial space-based applications at the 2023 edition of the Space Tech Expo Conference. For your chance to attend and get ahead of the curve on this and other key industry trends, make sure to register for the free-to-attend event, taking place May 3-4, in Long Beach, California. Click here to get your free pass today.