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Laser Communication Systems Could Transform Satellite Communications

As space exploration becomes ever more populated, satellites and rovers produce vast quantities of data that must be transmitted back to Earth quickly. Laser communications systems offer fast ways of doing just this – relaying messages 10 to 100 times quicker than radio.

Companies working in the NewSpace sector are already developing satellite constellations using laser communications technology – something which may make radio frequencies seem as obsolete as dial-up Internet access.

High Throughput

Light waves pack more information per volume, which enables them to transmit data faster and further than radio waves. Furthermore, laser communications technology is less susceptible to electromagnetic interference, making it an attractive solution. Lincoln Laboratory scientists have been developing laser communication systems for years; now their results are beginning to appear commercially.

SpaceX has employed laser communication systems to establish its StarLink satellite network; similarly, ESA is conducting its European Data Relay Service project (EDRS). Both networks enable satellites to communicate directly with each other as well as ground stations – providing global broadband internet coverage – without relying on fiber-optic cables underground. They even work between drones flying hundreds of miles apart or between satellites and planes hundreds of thousand feet high!

Laser systems offer another means of carrying data over longer distances than radio waves; the challenge lies in overcoming distortion and signal loss as the beam passes through the atmosphere. Researchers are making significant strides toward solving this problem; so as bandwidth demands increase this technology should become increasingly available.

Phase-gating electronic modulation (PGEM), an optical amplifier technique which produces pulses with variable intensities and sends control voltages that enable or disable certain pulses based on binary code, is the key to breaking through laser communication limitations. Receivers then detect this pattern and can reconstruct messages.

Optic wireless laser systems differ significantly from fiber-optic cable in that they can easily be relocated between points in the network, unlike fiber optic cable which requires physical connections between points in order to function. When switching locations, simply plug a dedicated phone line into the back of the remote-status monitor box and call into its dial-in number on dial up mode; dial-in performance information provides real time system performance information – particularly useful when renting space on an as-needed basis or connecting different facilities at one site.

Low Energy Consumption

Laser communication systems offer an alternative to RF communications that is much more energy efficient, which has become an important consideration for companies planning on launching large constellations of satellites to deliver broadband internet services to both enterprises and consumers. Given that millimeter wave technology can only deliver 40 Gbps at most, lasers provide significantly reduced costs per bit compared to millimeter waves – which helps ensure its financial viability as an enterprise solution.

Laser communication offers another distinct advantage over traditional forms of communication in that it spans millions of miles — enough to reach from Earth to the moon or even further out in space. As a result, it makes laser communications ideal for space exploration – something NASA already leverages through their Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) system consisting of high-speed electronics and two optical modules or telescopes.

The system’s modulated laser beam is amplified through an amplification stage before being fed to a high-efficiency optical fiber amplifier, where it passes through an OD variable neutral density (ND) filter to control laser power in order to mitigate atmospheric turbulence and scintillation effects. Control is accomplished using a feedback controlled servo mechanism so that transmitted laser power will remain constant during adverse weather conditions while being reduced accordingly in clear weather to prevent photodetector saturation.

Once amplification and filtering are complete, the modulated laser beam is fed into a beam expander – this optics helps expand its waist width while also decreasing divergence angles – before being reflected onto a mirror before finally reaching a photodetector on its receiver side for detection of transmitted light signals.

LCRD systems’ small footprint and power consumption make them an ideal way to reduce spacecraft and rover sizes, leaving more room for other equipment like fuel or imaging tools. Furthermore, less expensive launches and increased mission efficiency mean quicker data transfers and thus making future space exploration more efficient and helping us better comprehend our universe.

Long Range

Laser communication systems use an infrared beam of light to transmit information similar to how radio waves do, modulating an invisible beam in order to convey digital data at incredible speeds. By modulating it properly, data transmission speeds can reach unbelievable levels; satellites in low Earth orbit are able to talk among themselves as well as earthbound transmitters without losing strength over distances without loss. Plus, this technology uses less power than its radio equivalents!

Before recently, laser communications could not become commercial reality due to technical obstacles; however, thanks to advances in optical amplifier technology these barriers have been greatly reduced and companies like BridgeComm have developed systems capable of connecting across numerous satellites in an effective network.

Laser communication systems also benefit from being able to navigate around Earth’s atmosphere, which distorts radio waves and reduces their data-transfer rate. This makes laser beams ideal for deep space missions where communication may prove challenging. Radio transmissions also tend to dissipate over distance, weakening their signal strength and thus decreasing transfer rates; by contrast, laser beams maintain their focus, transporting much greater quantities of information over longer distances faster.

NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD), first implemented this technology. Launched in 2013, LCRD uses an infrared laser terminal in geostationary orbit to relay information from spacecraft in lower orbit back to Earth – its clients including Sentinel-1 from Europe’s fleet of environmental-monitoring satellites; Sentinel will utilize LCRD each day until 2014 until transmitting 6 Terabytes of images and surface temperature measurements back into LCRD via Sentinel-1’s orbital laser terminal.

Xebec, another company, has developed an infrared laser communications system capable of sending data back from low-Earth orbit satellites at an unparalleled throughput rate to Earth, offering up to one gigabit per second for communications or other uses. This revolutionary technology could pave the way to high-speed satellite links suitable for telecom or other services use.

Low Cost

Lasers are increasingly being utilized for communications and data transfer every day, from reading barcodes in checkout lines to tapping into the fiber optic backbone of phone and Internet services. But space-to-ground communication over long distances with high throughput and low latency has yet to take hold – though that could soon change with companies like Xenesis developing hardware designed specifically for this use onboard satellites such as the International Space Station.

One major barrier to deploying space laser systems is equipment costs. Laser communications use much smaller transmission systems that consume less power, making mass production of them cheaper than its radio equivalents. Furthermore, laser transmission doesn’t suffer from interference issues associated with radio transmissions so more equipment can be packed into an enclosed space more efficiently and will operate more smoothly than its counterpart.

ASU researchers are researching ways to make laser communication technology even more cost- and efficiency-effective, using one high-bandwidth CCD detector for both spatial acquisition and precision beam pointing, which reduces both costs and speeds associated with laser communication systems.

Technology like this will prove especially helpful to small satellites. A nano-spacecraft, for example, could use this system to transmit commands directly to an onboard robot for maintenance or navigation tasks as well as transmit images back down for visualization purposes.

Laser communications could potentially revolutionize how we communicate in space. Imagine an interconnected constellation of hundreds or even thousands of satellites, drones or high-altitude platforms connected by laser beams for broadband distribution throughout our planet – this could bring us one step closer to an autonomous world without borders and walls where data flows freely between flying machines.

As existing satellites fill geostationary orbit with debris, laser communications could offer an inexpensive, faster, and smaller alternative that avoids bureaucratic red tape associated with licensing regimes for radio frequency transmission between countries, which can add significant costs even before launch.
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