SS/L, NASA to Demonstrate Laser Communications on Upcoming Satellite

[Satellite News 04-10-12] Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) is teaming with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to host a Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) on a commercial satellite that will be launched in 2016, the satellite manufacturer announced April 10.

   NASA selected Goddard’s mission proposal to use the SS/L satellite platform under the agency’s Space Technology Program to help develop a new generation of optical space communications solutions.
   SS/L will work with NASA Goddard’s LCRD team to determine the technical requirements for the instruments to be integrated with the satellite’s SS/L 1300-based platform. Goddard Space Flight Center Project Manager Michael Weiss said that SS/L would work with its commercial customers to identify an appropriate host satellite for the demonstration as the new satellite’s optical modules and ground stations proceed through development.
   “The Space Systems/Loral platform provides NASA with the opportunity to demonstrate new technology on an operational satellite,” said Weiss. “Once proven, the technology that we are demonstrating will revolutionize future communication systems. The use of optical communication technologies in a network environment will meet the growing needs of high data rate user demands while also enabling lower mass and power for space and ground communication systems.”
   Weiss added that SS/L’s 1300 platform is particularly well suited for hosted payloads because of its size and high power capability. SS/L also has many years of experience in integrating government payloads onto commercial spacecraft. The company built the Intelsat-14 satellite that hosted the first commercial Internet Router in Space (IRIS) and was successfully launched in 2009. SS/L also built Optus-C1 for Singtel Optus, which was launched in 2003. Optus-C1 provides commercial communications services in Australia and also hosts a UHF payload for the Australian Defense Force. Most recently, SS/L integrated a navigation payload for the European Union onto the SES-5 satellite, which is scheduled to launch later this year.
   “We are fortunate to have this opportunity to collaborate with the visionaries on the Goddard Space Flight Center team,” Space Systems/Loral Vice President of Government and Civil Missions Al Tadros said in a statement. “By selecting this project, NASA’s Space Technology Program is not only investigating next generation technologies, but it is taking the lead in leveraging the benefit of commercial satellites for faster and less costly access to space. We applaud NASA for being proactive in the face of austere budgets to ensure continued science and technology advances.”
   Optical communications use a portion of spectrum that is relatively open compared to the radio frequency (RF) communications currently used to transmit data from space. Weiss said that laser communications has the potential to provide order of magnitude higher data rates than RF, providing the potential to enable access to much more of the vast amounts of data that are being gathered from distant planets, including images and video.
   The laser communication spectrum operates in the 200 Terahertz (THz) mid-wave infrared band of the electromagnetic spectrum. While laser communications spectrum is lightly used, multi-user interference as a result of heavy usage does not limit the spectrum’s capacity or speed due to its very narrow beam widths compared to RF.
   “Compared to high bandwidth RF links, laser communications terminals are approximately one order of magnitude lower in size, weight and power consumption, and are therefore suitable as hosted payloads over a broad range of satellites and spacecraft,” said Weiss. “For commercial satellites, laser communications could provide data at rates that are faster than today’s RF rates, with much less mass and power, which are the typical constraints on satellite design.”
   SS/L President John Celli noted that the laser spectrum is un-regulated and un-licensed and its corresponding increase in bandwidth performance eliminates spectrum as a constraint for all applications, including the highest resolution imagery payloads and scientific sensors. “We are excited to be a part of this mission, which is particularly interesting because of the great potential for laser communications to revolutionize space exploration as well as the commercial satellite industry,” he said. 

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